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John Rentoul

The Sketch: Osborne shows no fear as the big fight turns out to be a mismatch

My, how he's grown. Isn't it remarkable how the trappings of the priestly caste make it look as though George Osborne knows what he's talking about? Just because he is able to say he will group questions; just because he has got his voice by the throat; just because people are beginning to get used to the idea that when someone says "Chancellor of the Exchequer" they mean him – just because of those things, he can play at student debating and make it look like serious politics.

So when they say that Ed Balls is a bruiser, built out of girders, designed in the basement of Gordon Brown's subconscious for the purposes of opposition, it turned out that it wasn't quite the big fight we were expecting. The build-up was exciting. Osborne seemed so afraid of the arrival of a new opponent that he announced a big tax rise yesterday morning, six weeks before a Budget, just to deny Balls a populist stick to beat him with.

But when it came to it in the Commons, the shaman power of being in government allowed Osborne to prevail easily. The Chancellor managed to do the only thing that mattered: not to look in the least bit afraid.

It was Balls who looked nervous. He shouted a bit – the novice MP's error, miscalculating the noise in the Chamber against the effectiveness of the microphones – and managed to muffle his tribute to his predecessor, Alan Johnson. Then Balls became ominously still, and fixed Osborne with a stare. Now he's for it, we thought. "Is there something different about the snow in Britain?" he asked, wanting to know why the American economy is still growing.

It was a good question, but the thing about being in government is that you don't have to answer mere questions. So Osborne, after welcoming Balls to his post, ignored it. "He and the Leader of the Opposition know what it's like to be people's second choice," he said. "He is a man with a past" and "a deficit-denier".

Ministers can be caught out. Seconds later, Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, paused fatally and you could see the fear in his eyes. Why had the governing parties accepted Labour's spending plans, John Cryer wanted to know? Alexander had no answer at all, so he said: "The Opposition has no answer at all." Then he was safe.

That's how it works. Angela Eagle, shadow chief sec, quoted CBI boss Sir Richard Lambert as saying that Osborne was "all politics and no economics". Osborne replied with a political point and looked pleased with himself, thus proving her point. But he wears the robes of power. He looks bigger in his suit these days. He is in government so he looks like he knows what he's talking about.