Ed Miliband didn’t produce a spectacular response to the Budget, but neither did he have a bad outing at the despatch box. It was certainly better than his performance last year, and Labour MPs seem - in public at least - quite cheered by the whole thing.
The Labour leader did have to contend with a wall of noise from heckling Tory MPs. The Treasury Support Group has got rather carried away with itself at the past couple of economic statements, producing a boorish roar that requires frequent interruptions from the Speaker rather than under-the-radar witty cricket sledging which works in unsettling the Opposition. You don’t want the public or indeed even the Speaker to notice what you’re doing, otherwise your attacks become part of the story. The heckling did make Miliband’s response go through a rather chaotic phase where he appeared to be jumbling his lines.
But the Labour leader also had some good lines, and you could see the bones of a very aggressive scary Labour campaign in the speech too. He started by saying:
‘Mr Deputy Speaker, never has the gap between the Chancellor’s rhetoric and the reality of people’s lives been greater than today. This is a Budget people won’t believe from a government that is not on their side. Because of their record, because of their instincts, because of their plans for the future and because of a Budget, most extraordinarily, that had no mention of investment in our National Health Service and our vital public services.
‘It’s a budget people won’t believe from a government they don’t trust.’
He also had some good lines on the Tories being ‘out-of-touch’, particularly the reference to Grant Shapps’ seminal publication, Stinking Rich 3. But there was a sense that Osborne had rather effectively shut down a number of lines of attack for Labour: addressing the party’s allegations about a recovery for the few with his list of statistics about jobs and addressing the 1930s attack by saying that he would target a £7bn surplus, rather than the £23bn previously announced.
However, we now know what the Labour campaign for this election will look like, as well as what it will say. We’ve known for a good long time that it will focus on the NHS, but today we got the attack line, and it’s one designed to frighten voters:
‘And it’s most worrying of all on the NHS, you see because of the huge cuts they’ve announced – and all the Members opposite will have to justify this to their constituents – because of the massive cuts they’ve announced it means there’ll be colossal cuts, planned – and I emphasise planned – in defence, in policing, in local governments. But they won’t be able to deliver those cuts so they’ll end up cutting the National Health Service. That is the secret plan that dare not speak its name today! You can tell they’re worried about it, Mr Deputy Speaker!’
The NHS was the one line of attack that Osborne didn’t shut down, and it will be the main line of attack in an aggressive campaign from Labour. Labour will try to scare voters about the prospect of the Tories being in charge of the NHS as the Tories try to scare voters about the prospect of a Labour Chancellor. The result of the election may end up hinging simply on which is the least scary prospect.