Darling gave a solid if uninspiring performance, adopting a reassuring tone that supported Labour’s “don’t wreck the recovery” theme. But he stuttered when pressed by his rivals, and adopted arguments and language that was probably too complex for the average viewer.
Having delivered his Budget last week, Alistair Darling had little new to say. He was forced into a U-turn by Osborne, ruling out a so-called “death tax” to pay for Labour’s social care plans. He was also disingenuous about Osborne’s National Insurance cut, describing it as a spending rise.
The stakes for Osborne were higher than they were for anyone else. This was about avoiding a disaster, and in that respect he did remarkably well. His voice has lost the squeakiness that characterised previous performances and, despite appearing cocky at times, he avoided coming across as arrogant.
The shadow chancellor was strongest when defending his National Insurance cut, while he impressed by forcing Darling into a climb-down on the so-called “death tax”. But it was unfair to single out Barclays when criticising bonuses, as it is one of the only banks that wasn’t bailed out by the taxpayer.
Cable played to the gallery, earning several spontaneous rounds of applause, as well as getting the most laughs. He commanded the debate, often pressing his rivals more than the chair, although it was Osborne – not Darling – who bore the brunt of his criticism.
Although he was refreshingly honest about the scale of future public spending cuts, Cable’s populist pandering won’t have gone down well with financial markets. Confirming his hatred of bankers, he described them as “pinstriped Scargills”, in reference to the militant ex-leader of the miners’ union.