It isn’t easy to respond to a budget. Traditionally, opposition researchers grab all the documents as soon as possible and work on them while the Chancellor speaks, fleshing out some pre-prepared lines and gags with serious criticisms of the fiscal changes he proposes.
It’s a mad dash, but it can be done to good effect.
Let’s look at the last Labour opposition leader’s approach. On 26th November 1996, Tony Blair began his response by declaring an intention to “look, one by one, at the facts of what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said”, and then proceeded to do so to devastating effect.
Apparently that sounded a bit much like hard work for Ed Miliband. Instead of responding to the Budget, he opted instead for a generalised speech about nothing in particular.
In place of speechwriting, Labour appear to have used one of those fridge magnet poetry games. Several dozen pre-determined cliches (“Bullingdon Club”, “millionaire’s tax cut”, “same old Tories”) are mixed up in a bag and then flung at the Labour HQ fridge, like a cross between the offerings of a useless management consultancy and a mad soothsayer. Write them down in the order they stick, and, hey presto, you have yourself a Miliband speech.
In the 15 minutes he was on his feet he didn’t respond to a single policy presented by the Chancellor. The only one that even got a mention was the rising income tax threshold, and that was as a springboard to criticise the rise in VAT – a policy implemented almost four years ago.
Help for savers, cuts in green taxes, reductions in Air Passenger Duty, funding to fill potholes, action on childcare costs, an overdue cut in Bingo Duty, a penny off the pint of beer, another cancelled rise in fuel duty, a massive tax exemption on business investment, even a grant for the Scouts – none of them apparently merited the attention of the Labour leader.
You may like the Budget, you may hate it, you may even share the Adam Smith Institute’s reaction (“Well, that was boring”), but it’s hard to see anyone being satisfied with Miliband’s outing today. It was a speech with nothing to say, a response that didn’t respond, all delivered by a man who was barely there.