There were two key lessons from Treasury Questions today. The first is about Labour’s post-autumn statement line of attack. We already knew from Ed Balls’ briefing last Thursday that he feels cost of living is still a valid debate for the next year, while ministers want to talk about credibility and the need for a credible government to finish the job. But today he wove that together with the government’s claims about the cost of living, arguing that ministers had fudged their figures to claim that living standards are improving. He said:

‘Let me ask the Chief Secretary: on Thursday the Chancellor claimed in this House that living standards are rising. On Friday the institute for Fiscal Studies said that living standards are falling. So who’s right?’

Alexander replied:

‘Well can I first say what a great pleasure it is to those on this side of the House Mr Speaker to see the Shadow Chancellor in his place, Mr Speaker. I join with him in condemning the unattributable briefing against him from the people behind him, Mr Speaker, something that never happened in his day.

‘The whole reason why millions of Britons are under financial pressure is because Labour’s economic mess cost every household in this country £3,000. Because our plan is working, we can cut income tax, we can cut fuel duty, we can put the triple lock on pensions, we can freeze council tax, take money off people’s energy bills. The only way to raise people’s living standards in this country is to have a sustainable economic recovery.’

Balls shot back:

‘Mr Speaker, he’s as bad as the Chancellor. Why can’t he admit the truth, this government’s economic policy is not working for working people! That’s the truth. This is what the IFS said after the autumn statement. They don’t want to hear it – people are worse off under the Tories – that’s the truth, Mr Speaker. Hear is what the IFS said, Mr Speaker. They said real median household incomes will be substantially lower in 2015 than in 2010. Lower! And where is the Chancellor? He’s in Brussels where the government is taking legal action to stop a cap on bank bonuses, Mr Speaker! How out of touch can you get? Let me ask the chief secretary: are the Liberal Democrats really right behind the Conservatives on this one too?’

Balls has had to shift his attack in recent months from ‘the government’s economic plan isn’t working’ to ‘the government’s economic plan isn’t working for working people’. To make this stronger, he’s now added what he sees as the backing of the IFS to make it appear that ministers aren’t aware that working people are struggling.

This was the Shadow Chancellor back on form today, but while he thinks the IFS has boosted his attack, he will, as David Gauke drily observed in one answer, be looking for ways to improve his own party’s economic credibility. And that can’t come from quibbling government assertions or pointing at the cost of living. You could hear the Tory MPs heckling their way through the session still: the Treasury Support Group is thriving.

The second thing that we learned was that the recently-promoted Nicky Morgan is not to be messed with. She gave a fantastic performance at Treasury Questions today. Her answers were stern, clear and rather terrifying, and she even managed to avoid shouting over some of the more annoying heckling. Indeed, Morgan has clearly decided to draw on her previous experience as a whip, scolding Kevin Brennan for being ‘churlish’ and Chris Leslie for having ‘real cheek’. But most impressively, she is on top of her brief and able to give detailed answers to questions, which is not always a given for any minister, let alone a new one. Towards the end of the session, Danny Alexander told a Labour MP to ‘pipe down’ and looked rather pleased with himself. Clearly he too had been captivated by the Morgan magic.

Tags: Autumn statement, Cost of living, Ed Balls, Nicky Morgan