Ed Balls endured a torrid time in the Commons as he accused George Osborne of resorting to “smoke and mirrors” to cover up a record of economic failure.
Amid turbulent scenes in the chamber, the shadow Chancellor – whose flushed appearance saw him dubbed “Red Ed” on social media – struggled to make himself heard in the face of sustained heckling from Conservative MPs.
Following a well-rehearsed argument, he said that working people were worse off after “three damaging years of flat-lining” under the Coalition and contrasted them with millionaires who had benefited from a cut in the top rate of tax.
Mr Balls did not dispute that a recovery was under way, but said it was the slowest for more than a century and was not being felt in Britain’s pockets.
His faltering performance, which concentrated on the Chancellor’s record rather than Labour’s economic plan, could revive accusations that the Opposition lacks a comprehensive and convincing narrative on the economy.
Mr Balls’ showing even failed to make an impression on Labour, with Sky News quoting a party source as saying: “Labour has a very strong argument to make. Unfortunately it was not made well in the chamber today.”
Since the economy started growing earlier this year, Labour has switched its focus from the recession to the cost of living. It argues that wages have lagged behind prices in all but one month since the Coalition came to office. Ed Miliband wants to make living standards the central issue of the next election. It is also focusing on property price inflation, warning houses are rapidly becoming unaffordable for workers on average wages.
Foreshadowing Labour’s line of attack in 2015, Mr Balls lambasted the Chancellor for being in “complete denial” about the squeeze on income. He said Mr Osborne had announced “no real action to tackle the cost of living crisis, no proper plan to earn our way to rising living standards for all”.
“This complacent Chancellor sits there and thinks he deserves a pat on the back,” he continued. “I have to say, with bank bonuses rising again and millionaires enjoying a big tax cut, this is a policy which is working for a few. But as this Autumn Statement shows, with this out-of-touch Chancellor and Prime Minister, hard-working people are worse off under the Tories.”
He said Mr Osborne had been forced to downgrade growth projections, had lost Britain’s triple-AAA credit rating and had broken his promise to balance the nation’s books by 2015. He also charged the Chancellor with borrowing more in the three years he has been at the Treasury than Labour had during its 13 years in office.
In reply, Mr Osborne seized on a recent leaked email from a senior adviser to Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, describing Mr Balls as a “nightmare”.
He said: “The Leader of the Opposition and I agree on one thing – that was a complete nightmare. As for denial, the man who said borrowing wouldn’t come down, unemployment wouldn’t come down, growth wouldn’t happen... the man who refuses to apologise for what he did to the British economy? You are the epitome of denial.”
Mr Osborne said it was extraordinary the shadow Chancellor could not bring himself to welcome improved economic forecasts. The Chancellor said Labour’s “silence on the economy goes to the heart of their weakness”, accusing the Opposition of not being able to talk about the deficit, infrastructure, housing or business rates because it does not have policies in those areas.
Later Mr Balls said he was suffering a sore throat, but insisted: “I’m not going to allow 300 Tory MPs to drown me out. If that means I have to shout louder, then I’m going to shout louder.”