One of the questions being asked about yesterday’s Treasury questions, during which George Osborne announced he would freeze the planned fuel tax rise, was: “How did Ed Balls know?”
The shadow chancellor had written an opinion piece in the Sun just that morning arguing for such a move: coincidence, prescience, or had he been tipped off? Whatever the answer, Labour’s early move in calling for the government to reverse its initial refusal to cut fuel tax has meant blunted any credit ministers would have like to take from the move.
That was clear today during prime minister’s questions, when Tory MPs seemed muted in their cheers when Cameron said:
Why not get up an congratulate the government for being on the side of the motorist and the people who work hard and do the right thing?
Cameron tried to turn Ed Miliband’s attack on the u-turn into an attack of his own. He used it to bolster his characterisation of Ed as a dithering incompetent who can’t make his own mind up about anything:
On fuel tax he is against it but he is also in favour of it… Absolutely hopeless!
This line often works – one of Ed’s main weaknesses is his apparent indecisiveness – but not this time. For once, Labour had staked out their case early, stuck to it and kept plugging away. And both sides of the House knew it – for once the benches behind Cameron were quiet when he went on the offensive.
What this session also reminded us of is why Osborne has been so reluctant to pull u-turns on other parts of his Budget. After the chancellor reversed on the fuel duty rise, the next point was inevitable from Ed Miliband:
He has made six u-turns, but not on two decisions: the tax cut for millionaires paid for by a tax rise for pensioners.
George Osborne will not reverse those decisions (although I’ve said that before with this Budget…), and Labour knows it. But they can now renew their attack on those two moves without looking like they are fighting old battles. And we saw that with Ed Miliband’s best joke of the day:
When it comes to tax, it’s one rule for the comedians on the stage and another rule for the comedians in the cabinet.