The Sketch: An economy of ideas can't keep Balls out of the political game

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The Independent Online

The media game these days is to take Ed Balls seriously, and respectfully report his economic ideas. It's harder to keep a straight face as time goes on, but the interviewers don't care – they're doing it to destabilise his struggling leader, Ed Miliband.

No one's interested in the economics of Britain any more, only the politics.

Poor old Miliband has to respond to the Budget this afternoon, so yesterday we all went to Treasury questions hoping that the other Ed would give a performance to overshadow his schoolboy boss.

With the best will in the world, the game's too tough to play. Balls might as well be saying: "I don't know much about economics but I know what I like." (A perfectly respectable position, incidentally.)

Balls held up a document leaked to him, he said – the Budget speech or the briefing papers. "Don't worry, I'm not going to leak it to the press because there's nothing in it worth leaking!" Arf arf arf.

In Government Ed Balls was a tax-hiker. Now that the Tories are putting up taxes he's Labour's tax-cutter. This new position is determined by his opponents' plan of action not his own beliefs; we've seen how that game plays out.

In a weekend interview Balls referred favourably to the Reaganite Laffer Curve – saying a cut in VAT on fuel would increase net revenues. Lower taxes for higher growth. That puts him in very friendly relation to some of my pals, who cite the optimal rate of tax as 20%.

Anyway, Balls sat there shaking his head very, very slightly – as if to say, criticism deserved no more response than this.

Tories said rates would be 3 per cent higher under Balls's plan, we'd still be borrowing in 2014, and that by the end of next week £1bn will have been added to our interest bill. Michael Fallon pointed out that the Coalition had inherited six tax rises on fuel from the outgoing government, and that there were four more to come under, yes, Labour's plan.

It's an Exocet, isn't it? If you're sitting there shaking your head very, very slightly – do be careful.

Lindsay Roy picked up another theme his leadership is pushing – that the Government is "out of touch" because they are all so rich. "What effect on himself and his family will the VAT rise have?" he asked. The technical answer is: "Rock all, old cock." If you're poor enough to notice £1.53 on a 50-quid fill-up you're too poor to have a car.

Ed Miliband's household income is north of £200,000 a year so his ideas on the VAT increase are not exactly felt. Imagined perhaps, but not felt.