Ed Miliband was like a chef trying to make an omelette without eggs

By Quentin Letts

PUBLISHED: 22:38 GMT, 19 March 2014 | UPDATED: 08:29 GMT, 20 March 2014

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Ken Clarke and his tum were just behind me – on Budget day lots of MPs use upstairs overspill benches which abut the press gallery.

Gaseous, pre-prandial rumblings emanated from his direction. They sounded like a boiler we replaced at home last week. George Osborne’s changes to investment tax breaks found favour.

‘Egggsellent,’ exhaled Ken. Smoky snufflings and hoggy gruntlings sounded from the depths of the Clarke maw when Mr Osborne extended limits for ISAs and lending for exports.

Dreadful: Ed Miliband's response to George Osborne unveiling the big'un was almost void of financial content

Then the Chancellor reached his clincher, the unexpected announcement about pensions. Silence. No one, not even Ken, knew what to think.

Cue panic in the press corridor, reporters turning to one another and saying: ‘Annuities? Remind me. What the heck are they?’

A slimmed Osborne spoke for 57 minutes. At the end, Government MPs did their customary ballyhoo and Mr Osborne gulped down water.

His voice had been fading badly. Had the Budget been any longer, he would have needed a squirt of WD40, or subtitles.

The Chancellor looked genuinely drained – relieved, too. His face at the end seemed to say ‘crumbs, I did it’.

After past budgets he has often looked cocky but this expression was different.

It was as though he realised it was a big ’un. The silence from the Labour benches reinforced that impression. Ed Miliband’s remarkably vacuous response did not much lift Labour’s gloom.

The Labour leader's remarkably vacuous response did nothing to lift his party's gloomy silence

The Labour leader's remarkably vacuous response did nothing to lift his party's gloomy silence

The main words in Mr Osborne’s speech were ‘saver’ and ‘resilient’. There was all this stuff about steady-as-she-goes and restoring the economy brick by brick.

Then, wham, he concluded with the beyond-Thatcherite freeing of pensions. A pitch for UKIP sympathisers? Maybe. It certainly looks a defining moment for Mr Osborne’s Treasury years.

What heckling there was from Labour (deputy speaker Lindsay Hoyle had little trouble keeping order) came chiefly from that party’s women.

Islington’s Emily Thornberry barked the occasional insult and frontbencher Maria Eagle, standing near Brother Emily, kept up a running commentary of abuse.

‘Wot about the debt?’ bawled Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton N). Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd S) muttered and twitched, a hobgoblin from Dylan Thomas’s Llareggub.

Ed Balls kept doing a discreet thumb gesture, a furtive hitch-hiker. Big Jimmy Hood (Lab, Lanark) sat in a splodge of silence, nibbling on a petite little pinky: such a hefty yet his poise so balletic.

On the Tory side, slinky Liz Truss, education minister, sat on the floor, stretching her pale neck.Gentlemanly Kwasi Kwarteng (Con, Spelthorne) strode over to check her tender bottom was not in any distress. Bill Cash (Stone) cleaned his spectacles with a large mouchoir.

Ed Balls roared laughting as Osborne compared Miliband to King John, a weak leader who betrayed his brother

Ed Balls roared laughting as Osborne compared Miliband to King John, a weak leader who betrayed his brother

Claire Perry, a whip, was another Tory woman on the floor. She perched there, peering over baronet Sir George Young’s right shoulder like Long John Silver’s parrot.

Moments of levity: hearing a tax break for bingo, Suffolk Coastal’s Therese Coffey, having campaigned for it, cried ‘House!’; and Mr Osborne mentioned a grant to the Magna Carta Trust, simply so that he could refer to King John as ‘a weak leader who had risen to the top after betraying his brother, compelled by a gang of unruly barons to sign on the dotted line’.

The House twigged the Ed Miliband/trade unions analogy. Mr Balls roared with laughter.

When Mr Osborne hailed improving prospects in the north of England, Maria Eagle’s atonal soprano gave a ‘have you ever been there?’

Mr Osborne’s Tatton constituency is actually next to Manchester. Labour glumness was now so evident that smoothiechops Mark Garnier (Con, Wyre Forest) shouted: ‘Smile!’

The Chancellor was watched from the VIP gallery by not only his mother but also his wife and their daughter. The little poppet (daughter, that is) was rapt for the first ten minutes. The following 47 she found more of a test. Join the club, honeybun.

Mr Miliband’s Budget response, almost entirely free of financial content, was the speech of a chef trying to make an omelette without eggs. It was a chopped, half-fried, gabbled nothingness, little more than a smear of slogans. Dreadful.

By Staff 03/20/2014 04:29:00