It may be that most of the Tory backbenchers who are really perturbed by George Osborne’s dogged pursuit of Plan A simply failed to turn up for his ritual session in the noisy parliamentary equivalent of the stocks to which Ed Balls subjected him today. But they left the field clear for awe-inspiringly repetitive variations on a theme, that Labour was still exclusively to blame for the trouble we’re in. Including the “humiliation” as Balls put it, of losing a Triple A credit rating the “downgraded” Chancellor had once so prized.
A typical sample of questioning from his own side included Mark Garnier who wanted to know if he agreed that “it is going to take slightly longer than two-and-a-half years to sort out a mess that was more than 13 years in the making”. Classier, perhaps was Jacob Rees-Mogg’s magisterial dismissal of the credit ratings agencies suggesting he should quote Lord Chesterfield by telling them that “they are foolish people, who do not know their own foolish business”; an invitation which Osborne was sensible to decline, having made so much of the rating’s importance in the past.
Labour was hardly less repetitive in its search for metaphors with which to suggest that the “downgraded Chancellor”, as Balls called him, should consider his position. Dennis Skinner’s routine “if he was a football manager he would have been out on his neck already” was eclipsed by his colleague John Mann’s Captain Oates analogy: that the Chancellor should attend the next Cabinet only to announce that “I’m going outside and may be some time”. And this did provide Osborne, having decided that attacking Balls was the only possible form of defence, with probably his best line, that Mann had previously also suggested the shadow Chancellor should go. (He hadn’t quite, but by calling for the return of David Miliband and Alistair Darling, he had done the next best thing.)
Neverthless Balls largely overcame his own handicap which was that he had previously not been that enamoured of credit ratings as a measure of economic health. The Chancellor should “get out of his denial and get a new plan for growth, jobs and the deficit which will actually work, or else the Prime Minister will need to get a new Chancellor”.
Osborne was not going anywhere however. There had not been “excessive volatility” in the markets, which he insisted were the real test of his policy. “No excessive volatility” may not be the most resounding battle cry. But it got him through today.