Chris Leslie popped up on the Daily Politics today to complain about the way Ed Balls was received in the Chamber when he responded to the Autumn Statement. Asked why Balls made such a horlicks of yesterday’s performance, Leslie said:

‘Well, there are plenty of Conservatives who would like to say that, in fact there were 350 or so odd Conservative MPs barracking and jeering, and I defy anybody to try and get their voice heard in that environment.’

Andrew Neil then told Leslie that he had received three separate off-the-record briefings against Ed Balls from Labour aides, some of whom were close to Ed Miliband. The Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury replied:

‘Well, er, er, it’s always off the record, isn’t it? I mean, this is the thing, there’s all sorts of people you might want to quote but until you can tell me… I’m glad you played the clip because first of all it showed Ed Balls communicating it very loud and clear that this is a Chancellor who is out of touch with the cost of living crisis and he also very loud and clear made the point that this is a Chancellor who wants to be congratulated for failing to meet his plan to balance the books in 2015.’

Labour MPs have been very cross indeed about the ‘Treasury Support Group’ which James detailed on yesterday’s podcast: it’s a large group of Tory MPs including those ministers who sit on the steps on the government side of the Commons and spend an entire session trying to get under Ed Balls’ skin by barracking him. They’ve been on to Balls for a while, but this was their first big outing.

On the same programme, Polly Toynbee suggested that it would be helpful for the cameras in the Commons to show the behaviour of backbenchers as well as those speaking. This is a sensible suggestion as a great deal happens behind the despatch boxes that voters would benefit from seeing.

But this change wouldn’t benefit Labour. Because as much as there is a ‘Treasury Support Group’ that works on these big occasions to heckle Ed Balls, sitting opposite them on the Labour steps are two similarly tribal and vocal Opposition MPs: Michael Dugher and Sadiq Khan. Also out of sight of the cameras, these two men spend most of Prime Minister’s Questions heckling and chuntering, gesticulating and bellowing to try to put David Cameron off as he answers questions. Sometimes their gestures are co-ordinated, and at other times, their heckles are so loud that they reach us hacks perched high in the press gallery.

Besides, if we’re going to start feeling sorry for politicians subjected to shouting in the Chamber, then surely we could find a slightly worthier candidate than Ed Balls? He exists as his own Anti-Treasury Support Group, with a catalogue of famous gestures and facial expressions. He can quite often spend an entire session shouting across the Chamber at his chosen victim, whether it be the Prime Minister or a cabinet minister on the frontbench, and often riles the Prime Minister so much that David Cameron once dubbed him ‘the most annoying person in modern politics’. He is a masterclass in getting under the skin of an opponent. One of the most entertaining examples of Balls at work is the below video from the 2012 Budget:

And as for the attempt by Tory MPs to drown out Balls so that he shouted more and more, this is exactly what the Labour benches do too. The noise reached deafening levels recently at Prime Minister’s Questions, with David Cameron struggling to make himself heard over the roars. There were only a few hacks left in the Chamber yesterday when Balls spoke, as most were attending the post-statement Treasury briefing. I was one of them, and I can’t say I found the noise levels particularly remarkable. Both sides are as bad as one another when it comes to roaring and heckling. Now, you can argue that all this tomfoolery is beneath today’s politicians – maybe it is – but if Ed Balls and co want a deferential, quiet chamber, they’ve got as much to put in order in their own house as the Tories do.

Tags: Autumn Statement 2013, Ed Balls, UK politics