Mr Balls then took to the floor. His first 31 seconds were
By Quentin Letts
good. Then disaster struck.
Frogmen were last night diving on the wreck of a Westminster coaster, the high-tonnage Ed Balls, after she (okay, technically ‘he’) sank in less than a minute with the possible loss of all on board. The vessel foundered yesterday at the start of the Opposition’s response to the Autumn Statement.
One moment it was steaming on the high briny, its skipper biting on his pipe, squinting like Popeye at the noonday sun. Next moment: crrrump, glug, abandon ship, bubbles.
Poor Ballsy! It is never easy to respond to a Budget or Autumn Statement with the welter of blinding misinformation from the Government side. For years Mr Balls and his old boss Gordon Brown stitched together the most perfectly, brilliantly, masterfully incomprehensible, opaque, dishonest Budgetary Statements to confound the Tories. Heh heh heh.
They replaced boom and bust with blether. Gordon would gabble through statistics like a livestock auctioneer in the Lowlands. He’d mention ‘prudence’ a few times, wallop the English, then sit down with a ‘you’ll have had yer tea’.
Now a Tory Chancellor, Mr Osborne, is in office, doing much the same thing right back to Mr Balls (Mr Broon no longer bothers to attend Commons debates).
Mr Osborne’s speech was pregnant with statistics, tank traps and assorted other chicanes. I am proud to say that I followed, er, the first five words – ‘Mr Speaker, it’s taking time …’ Cue Labour thigh-slapping.
After that the speech became more challenging. We started getting in to the ‘rolling forward of outline frameworks into the financial year 2017-2018’. We had talk of ‘APF coupons’ and ‘cyclically-adjusted current budgets over the coming five years’ and ‘departmental resource total trajectories’ and ‘the envelope for total managed expenditure’. Just the one envelope? Are they sure it will be big enough?
Mr Balls accidentally said 'The national deficit, is not rising'
Round the Chamber, MPs affected expressions of exquisite, attentive bafflement. Diane Abbott (Lab, Hackney N) sent text messages. Mark Lancaster (Con, Milton Keynes N) sat rigid, palms on his kneetops. Julian Brazier (Con, Canterbury) fought a battle with Morpheus and may not have succeeded. John Woodcock (Lab, Barrow & Furness) stood behind the Speaker’s Chair, rubbing his cheeks hard.
As soon as Mr Osborne’s speech was done, the floor belonged to Mr Balls. The first 31 seconds were good. They were really quite faultless. As opening sallies go, those 31 seconds were a credit to Western civilisation. Mr Balls gripped the despatch box in a chunky-chap way and spoke his way slowly through some growly preliminaries. Maestro!
But then, at the 32nd second, disaster struck. ‘The national deficit,’ said Mr Balls, ‘is not rising.’
Oops. He did not mean ‘not’. He meant ‘the national deficit is rising’. Oh naughty negative, to slip under flubbering tongue like that. We all knew what Mr Balls intended to say. The trouble was, he was wrong. That is, the sentence he intended to say was wrong, whereas the sentence that actually popped out was right! I do hope you are following this.
George Osborne, David Cameron and Nick Clegg cheered. ‘Exactly!’ they cried. The deficit jolly well is falling. Mr Osborne could not believe his luck.
Edward Miliband was sitting just next to Mr Balls on the Opposition bench. He had been enjoying a sucky sweet. When Ballsy boobed, a reaction of the most marvellous comic incomprehension fell on Mr Miliband’s chops. His neck recoiled a fraction and his eyes went into airbag mode.
After that, Mr Balls never retrieved the House’s attention. He kept saying ‘they should listen to this’ but the afternoon was lost. In these austere times, we must take our pleasures where we can.