Ed Balls knew that his response to George Osborne’s Autumn Statement today was going to be difficult. As I blogged this morning, the Shadow Chancellor didn’t really have anywhere to go other than complain about the cost of living. This was aggravated by the fact that any Shadow Chancellor’s response to any autumn statement is a tough gig as he has no more advance sight of the figures and announcements than anyone else (perhaps George Osborne was just trying to be kind this year by briefing so much out in advance).

But Balls’ strategy seems to have been the following:

1. Draft some good jokes in advance
The jokes were good. If autumn statements were about jokes, Balls would have done pretty well. He referred to the latest universal credit debacle, saying: ‘No mention of Universal Credit in the statement. IDS: In. Deep. Shambles.’ And he mocked George Osborne’s flexibility over meeting his own targets with a reference to Owen Paterson’s comments about badgers, saying: ‘With this Government it’s clear not just the badgers that move the goalposts. And on energy bills, after their panicked and half-baked attempt to steal Labour’s clothes, we know they’re not very good at shooting badgers… they’re not very good at shooting other people’s foxes either.’

2. Talk about the cost of living
This was a good line for the Shadow Chancellor. He opened his response by saying:

‘The whole country will have seen today that, for all his boasts and utterly breathtaking complacency, the Chancellor is in complete denial about the central fact which is defining this Government’s time in office.That under this Chancellor and this Prime Minister, for most people in our country, living standards are not rising, they are falling year on year.

‘So Mr Speaker, let me ask the Chancellor to demonstrate that he’s not completely out of touch with the cost of living crisis facing millions of people in our country. Can he confirm that on average working people in our country are £1,600 a year worse off than they were when he and the Prime Minister took office? And that today’s OBR forecasts show that prices will continue to rise faster than wages this year and into next year too?’

Balls wasn’t wrong. The only problem is that pointing at expensive things only gets you so far as an opposition. Just because you’re the one who identifies a problem doesn’t necessarily make you the person to fix it. You still need to be able to make the case that proves the latter even when you’ve identified the former.

3. Talk about the Chancellor’s failure
This was another factually correct line for the Shadow Chancellor. He went through the many ways in which George Osborne hasn’t quite lived up to expectations. He mentioned that AAA credit rating that everyone got very worked up about until we lost it, saying:

‘Didn’t he make the number one test of his economic credibility keeping the AAA credit rating – but it has been downgraded, not once but twice?’

But again the problem with talking about someone else’s fiscal credibility is that you need to have a bit of it yourself. This is why Balls is so keen not to declare wholehearted support for high-speed rail: he knows he needs to do something to make Labour appear fiscally responsible where currently it does not. And the problem is that Osborne had managed to reel off sufficient lists of good numbers that provoked cheers from his side and stony silence from the other to make lengthy exposition of his ‘failure’ seem a bit misplaced.

He also struggled to contrast what he described at length as George Osborne’s poor policies with any other offer of his own. At one point Balls took on a particularly angry voice that made him sound like a disappointed headmaster, and said:

‘And on energy bills, after their panicked and half-baked attempt to steal Labour’s clothes, we know they’re not very good at shooting badgers…they’re not very good at shooting other people’s foxes either.

‘Because for three months the Leader of the Opposition has been calling for an energy price freeze. And did the Chancellor announce an energy price freeze today? No he did not.’

But that was about as far as it went on what Labour would do. And Balls could have made a great deal more of the energy bills element: after all, Labour has been hugely successful in panicking the Coalition with the price freeze pledge.

4. Offer a begrudging recognition of growth
If you’d blinked, you would have missed it, but there it was:

‘But even after today’s welcome upward revisions, growth is set to be half of that.’

5. Shout
The worst bit about the response was its delivery. Balls is a good performer, normally. He’s a good irritant in the Chamber, normally. Normally when you watch Ed Balls on the attack, you can see a funny light in his eyes of sheer joy in the chase, like Shere Khan stalking through the forest towards an antelope. But today when he sat down there was a look in his eyes of irritation, mainly with the way things had turned out.

Osborne said that this really was a ‘nightmare’ statement. He would say that, but in these circumstances, he was right. And Balls knows that the only way for him to wake up from the nightmare is to do something that will suggest that Labour is credible, which will need to be a pretty big gesture. Perhaps we’ll hear more strange rumblings about HS2 from Labour in the next few weeks. Or perhaps he’ll be hoping that buried in the documents released today is another row that he can capitalise upon.

Tags: Autumn Statement 2013, Ed Balls, Labour, UK politics