It is not often that one sees a man enter the Chamber with a dagger protruding from the back of his neck. Ed Balls attempted to make light of this encumbrance, but without success.
The Tories loved reminding everyone that Mr Balls has been stabbed in broad daylight by a member of his own side. The attack was launched by the mild-mannered Alistair Darling, whose work as Labour’s last Chancellor of the Exchequer was persistently sabotaged by Mr Balls, and by Mr Balls’s patron, Gordon Brown.
Beware the vengeance of a mild-mannered man who has been treated abominably for years on end. Not since Sir Geoffrey Howe finished off Margaret Thatcher has a former Chancellor done such damage to a member of his own party as Mr Darling has done to Mr Balls.
George Osborne wasted no time, at Treasury Questions, in taking advantage of this opportunity. When Mr Balls called on the Chancellor to “repeat the bank bonus tax” imposed by Labour, Mr Osborne replied that he was not going to rely on the advice of Treasury officials, but on “the advice I’ve been given by the last Chancellor of the Exchequer”, someone Mr Balls was known to be “very close to”, namely Mr Darling, who had said the bank bonus tax would “have to be a one-off”.
This was followed by repeated references to Mr Darling’s newly published misery memoir, in which he describes how he was undermined by Mr Brown, and by the former Prime Minister’s brutal henchmen, notably Mr Balls.
Mr Osborne assured us that we are “going to be hearing a lot more” about this book. One rather doubts whether Mr Darling wanted the present Chancellor to plug his work with such enthusiasm, but it is too late now.
Mr Balls flushed, shook his head and ran his hand in a horizontal motion from side to side with the palm facing downwards: a gesture indicative of his conviction that the economy is flat-lining.
Labour MPs tried their hardest to embarrass Mr Osborne by pointing to the recent, disappointing growth figures: but the Chancellor just retaliated by pointing to Mr Darling’s memoirs.
Iain Wright (Lab, Hartlepool) attempted to change the subject by referring to Harold Macmillan as “the most successful Chancellor and Prime Minister that Eton has ever produced”, and by quoting Macmillan’s reply when asked what was most likely to blow a government off course: “Events, dear boy, events.”
Mr Osborne accused Mr Wright of “being rather unfair on Hugh Dalton who I think also went to Eton”. It is true that Dalton, who was a rather unappealing Labour Chancellor, went to Eton.
But Mr Osborne ought to have said Mr Wright was being far more unfair to William Gladstone, an Etonian whose achievements as Chancellor and Prime Minister make Macmillan’s look distinctly modest.
The trouble with Mr Osborne is that he is only really interested in the unhappy history of the period 2007-10, as related in Mr Darling’s memoir. By the time this is over we are all going to be bored rigid.