Ed Miliband denounced George Osborne’s Budget as a “classic Tory con” which did not disguise the fall in living standards suffered by the vast majority of voters since the Coalition came to office.
The Labour leader was criticised for failing to address the detail of the Chancellor’s key measures, preferring to contrast the shrinking incomes of millions with tax cuts for the superrich.
As he taunted the Conservatives for being out of touch and the Chancellor for helping his “chums”, Mr Miliband faced sustained heckling from the Conservative benches.
The Deputy Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, repeatedly intervened to appeal for calm as MPs swapped insults across the chamber.
Instead of spelling out Labour’s alternative economic message, Mr Miliband concentrated on the Coalition’s record and accusations that David Cameron’s inner circle is dominated by Old Etonians.
Although he acknowledged economic growth was underway, he argued the country was experiencing “a recovery for the few, not the many”.
Mr Miliband said: “This recovery’s not working for working people whose living standards are falling.”
He lambasted the Chancellor for painting a picture of Britain that millions would not recognise, with 4.6 million families facing cuts to tax credits, one million more dragged into the 40p tax rate, 400,000 disabled people paying the “bedroom tax” and 350,000 people using food banks.
The Labour leader said living standards had fallen during 44 of the 45 months that the Coalition had been in power and people had been hit with 24 separate tax rises.
“We already know the answer to the question millions of people will be asking in 2015 - are they better off now than they were five years ago? The answer is no. Worse off, much worse off, worse off under the Tories.”
Mr Miliband added: “There is one group who are better off, much better off. We all know who they are – the Chancellor’s chums, the Prime Minister’s friends.”
Mr Miliband said a City banker on a salary of £5 million was more than £200,000 a year better off thanks to last year’s cut in the top rate of income tax. He contrasted them with the Government’s decision not to accept a recommended pay rise for nurses.
“These are the people that had the nerve to tell us we’re all in this together. It’s Tory values, it’s Tory choices. It’s the same old Tories.”
Labour had been keen to avoid a rerun of Ed Balls’s torrid experience in the chamber in December when the shadow Chancellor was drowned out as he responded to the Autumn statement.
Mr Miliband, who did not receive an advance copy of the Budget statement, opted to win cheers from his backbenchers by ridiculing Conservative chairman Grant Shapps’ suggestion that it was the real “worker’s party”.
He said the “latest rebrand from the Bullingdon Club” was “beyond parody” and seized on remarks by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, that the influence of Old Etonians was “preposterous”.
The Labour leader said: “You know you’re in trouble when even the Education Secretary calls you a bunch of out of touch elitists.”
Later Mr Balls said the party leader had been forced to tear up many of his preprepared remarks because of the absence of Budget announcements on tax and the cost of living.
In the Commons, Nick Brown, the former Labour chief whip, rubbished the Chancellor’s “we’re all in it together” mantra.
He told MPs: “The gap between the richest and the poorest in income terms has increased substantially over the last 40 years.”
But the former Conservative Cabinet minister, Andrew Mitchell, said Mr Osborne deserved “considerable credit” for the Budget.
“He has taken an immense amount of incoming fire from his detractors for many of the decisions he has made in the past four years, but the United Kingdom is in a far better position today than most other countries, Mr Mitchell said.
Andrew Tyrie, the Tory chairman of the Treasury select committee, said: “Both sides deserve credit for the fact the Coalition is still going and dealing with the deficit. Particular credit goes to the Liberal Democrats. If I may say so… I never thought they had it in ’em. But they have and they have stuck with it.”
George’s joke: If Ed Miliband’s King John…
In money terms, the most trivial item in George Osborne’s Budget speech was his promise of a grant to the Magna Carta Trust towards the 800th anniversary next year. The point of including the announcement was to make a joke at Ed Miliband’s expense, about King John. He was, said the Chancellor, “a weak leader who had risen to the top after betraying his brother, compelled by a gang of unruly barons to sign on the dotted line.”
Leaving aside whether this is a fair on Mr Miliband, the Chancellor was not being altogether fair on King John, by taking a simplified version of the Magna Carta story and reshaping it to fit the joke. It is true that John plotted while his brother, Richard the Lionheart, was in prison, captured on his way back from the Third Crusade, but the Plantagenets were notoriously treacherous in their relations with one another. The brothers were reconciled and Richard acknowledged John as his successor.
John’s failure as a king had a lot to do with the appalling financial mess he inherited, because of the cost of the crusade and of getting Richard out of prison. He was not so much “weak” as cack-handed. He got himself embroiled in a war with France which he could not afford, while his attempts to raise taxes to pay for it provoked the barons to gang up on him.
It is true that John signed Magna Carta under duress, and he soon repudiated it. Magna Carta’s significance is not in any practical effect it may or may not have had at the time, but in the symbolism of a king being told that there are rules that even he must observe.
Meanwhile, if Ed Miliband is King John, who does George Osborne think he is? Please, not Robin Hood.