THIS was it. The day Ed Balls had been waiting for, his first one-to-one against Osborne, and you could see it in his flushed cheeks, his tightly clasped hands, the spark of joy in his piggy eyes. A shame then, to fluff the first joke by stumbling on the words: “Good thing I didn’t have one this morning,” he said of his breakfast meetings, “or I would have missed this morning’s hurried budget!” Not a bad line, but delivered a little too eagerly, with a bit too much mania, like a rabid dog in denial of the impending sedative.
On the government benches MPs popped up like whack-a-moles to remind the House of what “that man” did then or what “the member over there” thought in that year. “This is a man with a past!” Osborne whined, standing stiff, as if in mid-strut, at the despatch box.
Balls sat almost trembling, cheeks taut over a grin, moving between incredulous leer, a chin-thrusting pout and a surprisingly constant stream of low-level heckling. “Dear oh dear!”, one of his favourite retorts, could be heard punctuating questions and answers. “Blimey, George!” for variety. “Talk about regulation,” he said darkly at one point.
As the questions went on, he began ominously folding a piece of paper, ironing it flat between finger and thumb as if crushing insects and consigning it to a brown envelope, which he massaged closed, gazing at enemy lines, perhaps imagining George’s head in his possession.
“There’s new management in charge at the Treasury!” said George, winning an instant response as Balls restarted heckling. The chancellor otherwise sat quietly. Perhaps he was beginning to sense that, for one nimble enough to avoid its bite, a rabid animal is more dangerous to its own pack.