Ed Balls’ response to the Autumn Statement was a menagerie of a speech. Foxes, badgers, turkeys, cats – it featured more animals than Dr Dolittle’s birthday party.
Sadly, there’s no animal known for going bright red in the face and ranting at George Osborne, so I’ll have to settle for a different beast when it comes to summing up the Shadow Chancellor’s performance. Balls has become the albatross round Labour’s neck.
It was the Brownite borrowing plans that got the nation into this mess, of course. But it is also his stubborn refusal to abandon that failed dogma which has forced Labour’s path throughout the last three years.
Even their recent, more successful, theme of the cost of living has only been adopted because Balls was defeated on his preferred topics – first claiming a double- or even triple-dip was on the way, then predicting rising unemployment.
Those failures led to a truly bizarre performance. His face had turned a loyal Labour red even before he stood up to speak, giving him the dubious honour of seizing the nickname Red Ed from his Leader. From the outset, he yelled – he yelled so much that his voice started to give out (a reversal of the norm – typically it’s Osborne who suffers a scratchy throat on these set-piece occasions).
Balls wanted to talk about everything – from the DWP to housing, the environment to utility bills – except the economy.
Of the ten phrases we predicted he wouldn’t dare to utter, he only used one: “flatlining”. No more bold predictions of GDP disaster, or soaring unemployment, and certainly no apology for being so wrong about everything.
But perhaps that was the reason for his loud oratory and louder facial colour. This is a man who feels he has been betrayed – not, as he sees it, by bad ideas, but by reality. And he is not the forgiving type.
Osborne’s Autumn Statement had plenty of good news to present, but it’s undeniable that there are vulnerabilities in the Government’s position. For the last few weeks, Labour have punched those soft spots more accurately than in a long time.
A photo of Balls could validly be used to define “pugilist” in the Oxford English Dictionary. With the Chancellor giving a steady performance in the ring, one might have expected his opponent to come out swinging. Instead, the speech was a gift to Osborne, as Balls performed the Parliamentary equivalent of hitting himself in the face.
The Government benches called for him to apologise for his scaremongering, and laughed at his fury, but it was the Labour MPs sitting behind him who provided the truly damning review of his performance. The Opposition started off muted and got quieter. That said it all.