Ed Balls swallows a frog – and strokes Labour's soft spots

Sketch: He railed at those fighting 'short-term battles' – but forgot his own party’s past

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Ed Balls got the hard part over at the beginning, paying tribute to "the strength of purpose and moral conviction" of "my friend, our leader, Britain's next Prime Minister, Ed Miliband". As Mark Twain said, if you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, everything in your day will seem easy after that.

And so it proved to be. For the rest of the shadow Chancellor's speech, easily the best so far in seven days of party conferencing, was something of a masterclass in how to stroke most of the party's erogenous zones –including a peroration invoking the household gods of the 1945 Attlee government – while confronting them with the need for Labour to impose "tough new fiscal rules" in its election manifesto to balance the country's books.

Admittedly, his high-minded declaration that "if you spend your whole time fighting short-term political battles – Dave versus Boris, Boris versus George, George versus Vince – you will never rise to the long-term needs of the country", did rather invite the substitution of names like Tony, Gordon, Peter. And Ed. But that was, of course, all buried in the past now that "I can't remember the party ever being so united".

With an eye to the new target in Labour's sights, women over 50, he ridiculed David Cameron for sacking Caroline Spelman, 54, to make way for an older man (Owen Paterson, 56) and turning the Prime Minister's mysteriously sardonic reference a month ago to Ed Miliband's "butch"-ness back on himself and his Chancellor: "Let's see them riding off into the sunset. Butch Cameron and the flatline kid."

He made the obligatory homage to the Olympics – how sick of this we are going to be by the end of Tory conference next week – into something of an art form, making it the model for future infrastructure projects, recolonising it as a mainly Labour event and stopping only just short of asking another woman over 50, "Dame Tessa Jowell"– without whom etc… to join him on the platform.

He even entered with revisionist impunity into one of the party's most bitter controversies by praising a "tough and unpopular" policy, which had triggered the resignation of two Labour Cabinet ministers. But no, this was not Iraq, but the 1951 imposition of prescription charges imposed by the Attlee Government. And the great Aneurin Bevan was one of the resigners.

He was helped, of course, by some also distinctly retro arm twisting in which a union motion attacking the party's economic policy had its teeth extracted, no doubt very painfully.

It was a rare throwback to the days when lethal ideological battles were fought out in the misleadingly harmless-sounding Conference Arrangements Committee. They were bad for politics of course. But a lot more fun.

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