Late in today's exchanges on the Autumn Statement, the Labour backbencher Toby Perkins rather oddly referred to George Osborne's "ghostly, ghastly deathly pallor". True, the Chancellor doesn't redden in anger as the Prime Minister can do. And his delivery had been bloodless. But by the time Perkins rose to his feet Osborne was much more cheerful than when he started.
This wasn't really because of undoubted Tory enthusiasm for the statement's content (no mansion tax, all the more pleasurable since the Lib Dems had wanted it, cuts in welfare, another cut in corporation tax etc). Nor was it to do with its composition. "It's taking time but Britain's economy is healing" is not the most arresting first line. And this was only the first of many coalition verbal chestnuts designed to get round everything being much worse than forecast: "on the right track", "hard road", "in the right direction", "no miracle cure". Surely, too, its time to ban the mantra about being "fair to the person who leaves home every morning to go out to work and sees that their neighbour is still asleep". (So over-used is this that he no longer has to explain that it's apparent because the blinds are drawn)
No, it was mainly because Ed Balls had an off-day. He never quite recovered from what Osborne would gleefully call his "Freudian slip" of saying that the "deficit is not rising" when he was trying to convey the opposite. He made some telling points about the forecasts. He made a decent joke that Osborne was not "waivering but downing". But he punctuated nearly every sentence with "Mr Speaker" – usually a telling sign that the flow is not there. And the tortuous metaphor from Nadine Dorries' foray to the jungle culminating in the cry of "He's the Chancellor; can't someone get him out of get him out of here?" failed to grip. The roar which greeted the end of his speech was mainly from the Tory benches.
Osborne's delight at this was shamelessly disproportionate, as if exacting sweet revenge for all those sedentary Balls interruptions that drive the Prime Minister crazy. "That was the worst reply to an Autumn Statement I have ever heard in this House," he said – a notably subjective proposition.
None of this however, could disguise Osborne's underlying message. Everyone who has used a pay-as-you-go phone will know the heart-sinking moment when the relentlessly cheerful Essex girl recorded voice says: "You've got no credit. Fantastic. Now, I've got four choices for you…" Essentially the Chancellor was saying to the country yesterday: "You've got no credit. Fantastic. Now I've got one choice for you: grin and bear it."