Revelling in the latest growth figures, George Osborne lifted Balls-baiting to a new plane. He was asked an unusually long list of super-friendly questions by euphoric Tory backbenchers. Ones that in the secret dreams of the MPs involved, invite the answer: “Yes. My honourable friend has absolutely hit the nail on the head with that spiffing question correctly mentioning our long-term economic plan, allowing me to lay into the Opposition, and qualifying him for early promotion.”
Aidan Burley – braving the Commons after a further unwelcome weekend report that he brought the groom an SS uniform to wear at his Alpine stag party a couple of years ago – celebrated the fall in unemployment in his Cannock Chase constituency.
But Andrew Jones’s was a classic: he asked the Chancellor to “agree that the anti-business rhetoric and measures” of “some” (shorthand for Eds Balls and Miliband) would “destroy that progress”.
To this, Osborne replied: “By being anti-business, they are anti-recovery, anti-jobs, anti-investment and anti-the British people.” Heavens! Not quite Churchill’s “Gestapo” gibe at Labour in the 1945 election. But a bit over-the-top to label a freeze on energy prices and a 50p top rate tax rate as the work of a treacherous fifth column.
This was just a warm-up. So emotionally charged is Treasury Questions that a certain light-headedness sets in at times.
Labour’s Barry Sheerman promised the Chancellor to welcome improvements in the economy “if he stops blaming the whole economic world meltdown on the previous Labour government”. Osborne said this was “the first time in years” Sheerman had defended Gordon Brown. Sheerman laughed long and merrily, rather confirming the accuracy of Osborne’s remark.
But this did not deflect Osborne from reciting a list of Balls’ gloom-laden predictions about the economy – confounded, as the Chancellor saw it, by the news on growth – before producing the day’s most excruciating pun, popular as it was on the Tory benches. “He has been wrong on all these things. What the Opposition need are new crystal balls.” A sardonic Balls retorted acidly: “Very good, Chancellor – a joke about my name being Balls. Fabulous.”
So not the easiest day for the shadow Treasury team. But Balls is too experienced not to clutch at a passing raft. And it was that “the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London are now saying that they want to cut the top rate of income tax again, to 40p”. Not quite accurate in Cameron’s case, since he ducked the question on Monday. But that wasn’t the point, which was to demand: “Come on, George – stand up and rule it out.” Something Osborne’s long answer denouncing Labour’s 50p top rate omitted to do. Which means we will be hearing more of this unless and until he does.