Sketch: Who can self-flagellate his way to No 11? Both of them can

The main oddity of a narcotic Ask the Chancellors was that it wouldn’t always have been clear to a visiting Martian, say, who had been in power for the past five years

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If it really is “the economy, stupid”, then heaven help us. None of this was the fault of the Sky News political editor, Faisal Islam, or a decent group of questioners. But this was so not a “debate” between the Chancellor and his shadow, that even their separate appearances had a half-hour interval between them in case either of them actually met, let alone started arguing with each other. This did not make for riveting television.

The main oddity of a narcotic Ask the Chancellors was that it wouldn’t always have been clear to a visiting Martian, say, who had been in power for the past five years. This was partly because George Osborne, at even greater pains than usual to point out that all was far from hunky-dory economy-wise, almost sounded at times as if he was attacking the people who had been.

At one point, Sue Terpilowski, the boss of a company called Image Line, excoriated the 300 per cent rise in business rates which had forced her to downsize and was a “growth stopper”. “I completely agree with everything you say,” the Chancellor replied cheerfully. And despite faster growth than in “most” other countries, he sternly warned the panel of businesspersons and young people: “It is still a very difficult economic situation out there – that’s why interest rates are so much lower than... in other times. Let’s not think the problems are over.”

Of course, this Eeyorish approach is designed to show that only he and his colleagues can perform the “long-term job” of fixing everything. But there are dangers of crossing a line into reinforcing worries that things aren’t better.

The Martian’s bewilderment would have been intensified by Ed Balls’s  conversely apologetic tone. Yes, Labour hadn’t regulated the banks as vigorously as it should have done and he, too, “totally agreed” that, in the early years of the Labour government, we didn’t build enough homes”. And necessary as it now was to help the NHS, he didn’t “come into politics to levy a mansion tax”. (This may not be a good road for Miliband to go down in the seven-way debate next week, since the Greens and Plaid Cymru, say, may think there are worse reasons to go into politics.)

It only really came alive twice. A young woman from Redditch called Sharnah Wynn spiritedly told Osborne that some on zero hours contracts “can’t eat sometimes because they have just got no work, I suppose you don’t really see that”.  And Balls said he was in favour of lower farm subsidies. At least a politician had said something which will actually upset somebody. But overall “it’s the economy, stupefying.”

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