Ed Balls blames his stammer for poor show against Osborne
Weak excuse, say his critics - and with the Tories squeezing benefits, Balls need to get his act together
LABOUR shadow chancellor Ed Balls today blamed his stammer for his faltering performance in the Commons yesterday when he missed an empty net after George Osborne's Autumn Statement hit millions of people with real-terms cuts in welfare benefits.
"Sometimes my stammer gets the better of me," Balls said on Radio 4's Today programme this morning.
He said the effect did not normally last beyond the "first minute or two" of his speeches, but was exacerbated "when I have the Prime Minister, and the Chancellor and 300 Conservative MPs yelling at me at the tops of their voices".
Balls tripped up yesterday by saying the "deficit is not rising" when he meant it was. He corrected himself, but by then he had lost it.
Tory tweeters were quick to put the boot in. Tim Shipman of the Daily Mail tweeted: "It is bizarre that Ed Balls, the most brutal heckler in the Commons, expects any sympathy at all for his condition. Live by the sword... "
Balls also complained that when he stood up at the Despatch Box, he did not realise Osborne had massaged the figures.
Osborne included the £3.5bn in proceeds from the 4G sale in the accounts for next year (even though they have not yet been auctioned) to avoid the borrowing figures going even higher.
Balls complained that this was a "sleight of hand" by Osborne – a line that earned him even more derision from those who remember the smoke and mirrors used by his old boss Gordon Brown.
Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, tweeted: "Balls says 4G was budgetary 'sleight of hand' and can't remember such tricks happening under Labour. Sometimes, words fail."
George Osborne told Today that Balls would be taken more seriously if he would accept that he and Labour were responsible for the economic mess.
"[It] is nothing to do with his stammer. It's the fact that he was the chief economic adviser when it all went wrong. He never admits he was there are the scene of the crime."
Nick Robinson, the BBC political editor, also dismissed Balls's "stammer" excuse for his poor performance in the House. "He did mess it up – let's be clear. Ed Balls tried to say the national deficit was rising. He said it was not rising... Politics is a contact sport. Ed Balls is a bruiser. He regularly shouts at his own opponents."
A far more damaging charge could be set against Balls – that he is dithering over Labour's response to the welfare cuts. He repeatedly refused to say whether Labour would vote against the Welfare Uprating Bill in the New Year which will put into law a real-terms cut in benefits for the next three years by uprating them by only 1 per cent – around 1.7 per cent less than inflation.
Ball pointed out that the cuts will hit people on low earnings who receive benefits to make up their income - the very "strivers" that Osborne is claiming he wants to defend. "Osborne wants to pick on people he thinks are workshy and feckless. If you look at the facts, 60 per cent of the people who are affected by the one per cent freeze are in work."
But he said Labour needed time to study the proposal before deciding how to vote on it. "The test for me will be is it hitting people in work on low incomes, does it lead to rising child poverty and is it fair for him [Osborne] to take billions of pounds from middle and low-income families when he is spending £3bn from next April on a tax cut for people on over £150,000 a year."
This is a line which cannot hold for long. Labour cannot dither until the New Year over whether they are prepared to protect the people they claim to represent – the people at the bottom of the earnings league.
The problem for Labour is that opinion polls show the great British public is in favour of squeezing welfare benefits. And Labour wants to approach the 2015 general election with the public on its side.
This episode does not auger well for Balls in his current job. Labour leader Ed Miliband needs someone who has the competence to take the lead on economic affairs with a sure hand and shrewd judgment.