What a bludgeoning! By the time George Osborne had finished, even some of us who were mere spectators felt stunned. Here was a Chancellor determined to assert his complete dominance. With relentless energy, he set out to prove that he rather than Ed Balls knows how to build a modern economy, a modern society. “That is progressive politics in action,” as he put it after pointing out that the gender pay gap is narrower than it has ever been.
This was the speech of a moderniser: a man determined to show that the Conservatives are on the side of aspiration, while Labour is “anti-aspirational” and sneers at those who want to work hard and get on. Osborne sneered instead at Labour, for having caused the deficit and having no idea what to do about it.
How would Balls reply to this? How could he withstand such an assault? He did so by presenting himself as the man who understands the figures: the man who can navigate the Treasury tables and pluck from them the statistics he needs. To demonstrate his expertise he said things like “I’ve never heard of a prospective forecast of an underspend done in that way”. He demonstrated at least to his own satisfaction that borrowing this year and next year will be higher than the Chancellor had predicted at the time of the last Budget.
Any number of Labour speakers had already reminded us, during Prime Minister’s Questions, that the Government has completely failed to deal with the deficit in the way it announced in 2010 that it was going to deal with it. This point is incontestable. But the trouble with it is that it implies the question: what would Labour do differently?
Even Gordon Brown in his pomp knew that was a very dangerous question for an Opposition. Hence his promise, in the run-up to the 1997 general election, to match Tory spending plans. But what answer does Balls give to the question? So far as I could detect, he gives no answer at all. He implies that Osborne really ought to have achieved greater fiscal discipline, without giving any overall sense of what Labour would do differently. If he thinks Osborne is irresponsible and incompetent to borrow so much money, does he propose to borrow even more? Balls knows he cannot take that line. Nor is it tempting, a few months before a general election, to argue for deeper spending cuts. Whether by accident or good judgement, or a mixture of the two, Osborne has left his adversary with nowhere to go.
Ken Clarke was up next, and said it was “absolutely quaint and ridiculous” for Balls to pretend to have undergone a “conversion to rigid fiscal discipline”. That is true. Balls has any amount of fighting spirit: in some ways it is a relief to listen to him instead of Ed Miliband. But the two of them have somehow managed to waste the last four years. There was no sense today that either of them has done the hard work needed to develop a plausible economic programme which is different to Osborne’s. They are spectators who hoped to witness a disaster and have no idea what to do about a recovery.