Opposition Day debate on jobs and growth speech

Ed Balls (Morley and Outwood) (Lab/Co-op): I beg to move,

That this House notes that there has been no growth in the UK economy over the last nine months, compared to 1.8 per cent. growth in the previous nine months; further notes that families are feeling the squeeze, unemployment is rising again and the recovery was choked off last autumn, well before the eurozone crisis of recent months; agrees with the International Monetary Fund’s managing director that ‘growth is necessary for fiscal credibility’ and the IMF’s recent report which warned that ‘if activity were to undershoot current expectations and risk a period of stagnation’ the Government should ‘consider delaying some of their planned consolidation’; further notes that borrowing is forecast to be £46 billion higher than planned because of the slower growth and higher unemployment arising from the Government’s policy of cutting spending and raising taxes too far and too fast; further believes that the Government need a plan for jobs and growth if the deficit is to be reduced in a sustainable way; and calls on the Government to implement a steadier deficit plan and the Opposition’s five point plan for jobs, which includes a tax on bank bonuses to fund 100,000 jobs for young people, bringing forward long-term investment projects, reversing temporarily the VAT increase to provide an average £450 increase for a couple with children, implementing a one-year cut in VAT on home improvements, repairs and maintenance to five per cent, and a one-year national insurance tax break for small firms taking on extra workers.

In opening this Opposition debate on the economy and moving our motion urging the Government to kick-start Britain’s choked-off recovery and adopt Labour’s five-point plan for jobs and growth, I shall start by setting out the facts for the House and for the country. Over the past year the British economy has ground to a complete halt. The latest figures show no growth at all since last autumn. Consumer and business confidence has slumped. For three months manufacturing output has been falling. More than 16,000 companies have gone out of business. Employment is falling and today’s chilling news is that unemployment has risen by 114,000 in the past three months alone.

Unemployment here in Britain now stands at 2.57 million people out of work—the highest level since 1994. Unemployment is rising across the country. We have the highest level of unemployment among women since 1988. Most worryingly of all, youth unemployment, which a year ago was falling, is now rising again, up 74,000 in the past three months, with 991,000—more than one in five—young people out of work. There has been a 60% rise in youth long-term unemployment since February, and the overall level of youth long-term unemployment is at its highest for 19 years. What a waste of talent, what a waste of money and what a betrayal of this young generation.

Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): The former Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, said yesterday:

“I think the economic proposition that Labour puts at the moment is unconvincing.”

How can the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) convince the House and the country when he cannot convince his former Cabinet colleague?

Ed Balls: Unemployment is rising and growth is flatlining. The Prime Minister said just a few months ago that the only person supporting me was The Guardian leader writer. Since then, what have we seen? The OECD and the International Monetary Fund are saying that the Government should change course. What has happened to The Guardian leader writer? He has become the speech writer to the Prime Minister.

To those who say that these are just the effects of a world economic crisis now hitting Britain—the same people who absurdly claim that the global financial crisis was all the fault of the British Labour Government, but who now want to blame the British growth crisis on the rest of the world—I say yes—

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Ed Balls: In a minute.

Yes, the deepening euro crisis and the weaker US recovery have made things harder for British exporters in the past three months, but one cannot blame the eurozone or the world economy for the collapse of economic recovery here in Britain when, since last autumn, our economy has grown more slowly than that of any EU country except Greece and Portugal, when we have the highest level of inflation of any EU country except Estonia and Latvia, and when, over the past year, we have seen a bigger rise in unemployment than the EU average, when most EU countries have seen unemployment not rising, but falling. I know the Chancellor does not like it, but those are the facts. The Prime Minister said today, “I accept responsibility for everything that happens in our economy”. I hope the Chancellor will do the same today.

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the trade deficit between ourselves and the 17 countries in the eurozone has gone up from minus £4 billion to minus £38 billion in the past year alone, and that one of the main reasons, both as respects the whole of Europe and as respects the United Kingdom, is that employment and social regulations are strangling small businesses, for which the Labour party was also responsible in Government? I am critical of the present Government, but am I not also critical of the right hon. Gentleman’s party’s performance in the past 10 years?

Ed Balls: The Chancellor’s big boast over the past six months, which we were told regularly, was that between 400,000 and 500,000 more jobs had been created in the British economy, but today’s figures months show that employment has not gone up at all in the past 12 months; it has actually gone down. We were also told that public sector job cuts would be more than outweighed by the rise in private sector jobs, but I am afraid that employment is falling because the private sector has been unable to deliver the recovery we were promised. It has been a complete fantasy.

Christopher Pincher: It is nice that the shadow Chancellor acknowledges the Government’s responsibility for the economy, but it would also be nice if he took some responsibility for the damage he did to it when he was in power. A former Chancellor has said that Labour lacks economic credibility. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot even convince a former Chancellor on his own Back Benches, how can he convince the country?

Ed Balls: The hon. Gentleman will have to convince his constituents because, despite the fact that we were told a year ago that the recovery would be on track, growth has flatlined for a year and unemployment is rising right across the country, which means that borrowing will be higher, not lower.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): The shadow Chancellor responds to questions about his failing to convince his shadow Cabinet colleagues and former Cabinet colleagues by talking about convincing constituents, so why have his poll ratings for economic credibility fallen among his constituents and my constituents and across the whole country?

Ed Balls: I would be happy to have a debate with the hon. Gentleman on economic credibility. He said in June this year:

“Employment has gone up in my constituency and unemployment has been falling, which is welcome.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 426.]

The figures show that unemployment in his constituency has gone up by 456 in the past year. Perhaps he should apologise to his constituents for getting it wrong.

Several hon. Members rose

Ed Balls: I will make some progress before giving way again. A year ago we warned that a global hurricane was brewing and that it was exactly the wrong time to rip out the foundations of the house here in Britain.

Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): Will the shadow Chancellor name one country that has managed to get out of recession without growth?

Ed Balls: By definition, it is impossible to get out of recession without growth, which is why in the past nine months we have seen no growth at all. We were told we were out of the danger zone, but we do not hear that very often now.

Several hon. Members rose—

Ed Balls: I will make some progress before giving way again. I am always very happy to take interventions. It is clear that the Chancellor has a good whipping operation in place today, although good whipping is something he knows quite a lot about.

A year ago, we warned that a global hurricane was brewing and that it was exactly the wrong time to rip out the foundations of the house but the Chancellor disagreed and recklessly decided to raise taxes and cut spending further and faster than in any other economy. The evidence is clear that his plan has not made the British economy better able to withstand the global storm and that by going too far and too fast he has left it badly exposed. Families and businesses up and down the country are asking how many more businesses must go bankrupt, how many more families must see their living standards fall, how many more young people will have to lose their jobs, how much more unemployment and misery and rising child poverty must we see. How much more evidence do the Government need before they finally change course?

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Ed Balls: I will happily give way to my friend over there.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am grateful to the shadow Chancellor for giving way, but I wonder whether he has got it the wrong way round. With a global storm brewing, the right thing to do was ensure that the gilt market was secure and that we could carry on borrowing cheaply, which has ensured that a recovery will eventually come. He can no doubt find something I said in 1830 and quote it back to me, but that is not really the point.

Ed Balls: I am not sure about 1830, but if the hon. Gentleman was in the House in 1930—he might have been—he will know the dangers of very low bond yields accompanied by rising national debt, rising unemployment and economies locked in stagnation. I do not know whether he was around at the time, but some forefathers and foremothers certainly were. Let me quote the director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, the think-tank of the year, who said:

“The reason people are marking down the gilt yields is because they think that the economy is weak.”

That is the truth.

Let me make a prediction. I do not expect the Chancellor to announce a change of course today, but will we hear him repeat his boast made this time last year that the British economy’s recovery is on track? I doubt it. Will he repeat the Prime Minister’s deeply complacent boast that Britain is out of the danger zone? I doubt that, too. Will he describe Britain as a safe haven that is immune from the global storm? Will he repeat his naive forecast that cutting public jobs will boost private confidence and create more private jobs? Even this Chancellor cannot fly in the face of the facts. Employment has fallen in the past 12 months. On the day when unemployment has risen again, will he give any indication that he understands at all how hard things are for families up and down the country? Is he so out of touch that he really believes that a £1.40 a week council tax freeze can compensate for a £9 a week rise in VAT?

Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): On unemployment in manufacturing, why does the shadow Chancellor think that manufacturing was 21% of GDP in 1997 and 12% when Labour left office?

Ed Balls: Well, unemployment has fallen as a percentage—[ Interruption. ] As I said, that whipping operation knows no bounds. I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman was going to repeat what the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) said earlier this year. He said that

“manufacturing is expanding under this Government”.—[Official Report, 23 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 1024.]

The trouble is that manufacturing output has fallen in every one of the past three—[ Interruption. ] I am going to agree with the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who wrote on his blog that

“deficit reduction alone isn’t enough. If we are to smooth the waters of this choppy recovery we need to ensure that we also support sustainable growth in the private sector.”

Where is that growth? Will the Chancellor repeat his claim that—

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Ed Balls: Undoubtedly.

Sir Peter Tapsell: As a lifelong Keynesian, I fully understand that growth can be achieved only by increased demand. Every Finance Minister in the western world is grappling with that problem. What are the right hon. Gentleman’s proposals for increasing demand without causing damaging side-effects for the rest of the economy?

Ed Balls: At last, a perceptive intervention from the right hon. Gentleman. I will come to that very issue later in my speech after making a few more points. I will deal with ensuring that getting demand moving is done in a safe, sustainable and careful way.

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is no surprise that, if the Chancellor announces half a million job cuts in the public sector, those people will save rather than spend and that the people in the private sector, who normally sell things to them, contract and stop taking people on? It is no surprise that that very announcement underpins the lack of growth in our economy and puts the guilt on the Government side of the Chamber.

Ed Balls: I think that the Chancellor will regret talking down the British economy a year ago, because the rise in private sector jobs has been swamped by public sector job cuts. That is why employment is falling. That is why the private sector is not investing. That is why his corporation tax cut has had no impact on private sector investment. Will he repeat his claim made in January 2009 that

“quantitative easing is the last resort of desperate governments when all their other policies have failed”?

Those are prescient words, because we know the truth, and so do his increasingly desperate-looking supporters on the Government Benches.

Let me say what the Chancellor cannot admit: the private sector-led recovery he promised has proved to be a fantasy, as we predicted. In the past year, the growth that he predicted has failed to materialise.

Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Ed Balls: In a moment.

Unemployment is rising, and a vicious cycle of higher unemployment, fewer people in work paying tax and more people on benefit means that the Chancellor’s deficit reduction plan is going badly off track. We all know the truth, and so does he—plan A has failed.

Sajid Javid: Can the right hon. Gentleman name one country that has got out of a debt crisis by taking on more debt?

Ed Balls: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. If, rather than preparing his intervention, he had listened to my last point, he would have understood why borrowing is already set to be £46 billion higher than the Chancellor planned. The reason is that if unemployment goes up, if the economy flatlines, if fewer people are paying tax and if more people are on benefits, you borrow more. In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, 50 more people are unemployed than a year ago. Perhaps he should be apologising for backing a Chancellor who got it so badly wrong.

This increasingly desperate Chancellor is now relying on plan B—or should I say plan BOE? But quantitative easing cannot work on its own, and any sensible economist can tell him why that is. The new shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), who is a former Bank of England economist, can certainly explain to the Chancellor why quantitative easing cannot do the job on its own. Whether the current Chief Secretary—the former national parks press officer—could explain to the Chancellor how quantitative easing works is another question. As the shadow Chief Secretary could very well explain—[ Interruption. ] Does the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) want to intervene? If so, I will happily take his intervention.

Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con): As a former Bank of England economist, may I explain to the shadow Chancellor that quantitative easing works only when one has a credible fiscal policy?

Ed Balls: I am so pleased that the hon. Gentleman has made his intervention, because we have missed him for the past couple of debates, and now he is back. Last time he intervened on me, he put this on his website:

“Shadow Chancellor boosts Matthew’s work in West Suffolk”.

I want to do the same again. His campaigns to get more money for schools, to keep Thetford forest safe and to stop cuts to school crossing patrols are going well. The chief executive of his council has been sacked, and the Labour council in Ipswich has intervened and backed his campaign on school crossing controls and libraries. I have a quote from the shadow Chancellor for his press release: “Mr Hancock has been tireless in his campaign against unfair cuts to local services imposed by the Conservative-led Government—cuts which go too far and too fast.” He can leave the last bit out if he likes; I do not mind.

Matthew Hancock rose—

Ed Balls: I will give way, but before I do, let me return to quantitative easing. As these Bank of England economists know well, simply printing money cannot boost demand and keep interest rates low when they are already close to zero. Printing money cannot boost spending when companies are too scared to invest and consumers to spend. QE—the hon. Gentleman should know this—cannot revive a stalling economy by boosting demand in one direction when fiscal policy is working in a contractionary way in completely the opposite direction. As the Bank of England Governor said only last week, and in this respect I agree with him:

“We can do our part in it but we can’t solve all our problems alone.”

I now give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Matthew Hancock: The shadow Chancellor is famous for being a supporter of Norwich City football club, so will he join me in welcoming the decision to break ground on dualling the A11—an investment project that did not get the go-ahead under Labour and is happening under this Conservative Government?

Ed Balls: I think the hon. Gentleman got the name wrong. He does not mean Norwich City—he means premiership Norwich City, which is more than one can say for any football team in Suffolk. I will back his campaigns to stop the cuts and to spend more, and I fully support the dualling of the A11. At last some Conservatives have persuaded some Conservative councils to do the right thing about these proposals, which is very good.

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): It is all very humorous here today, but in my constituency we already have above-average national levels of unemployment and unemployment has increased. It is always interesting to hear an economist debate with another economist. However, may I ask the shadow Chancellor what direct personal experience he has of working in business, helping to create jobs, and knowing what it is like to make payroll each week? If he does not have any of that experience, will he please undertake to this House that he will go out and get some?

Ed Balls: I have worked in Government and at the Financial Times. I have never run a business, but I respect people who run businesses and I understand why they are so worried at the moment. In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, where unemployment has gone up by over 400 in the past 12 months, there will be some very worried businesses, and it is important that we listen to them and hear what they are saying.

That is why now is the time for our oh-so-political Chancellor to put politics aside and start to do the right thing. Protecting our economy and protecting valuable businesses and jobs is more important than trying to protect a failed plain. We do not have to wait for another month of unemployment rising, or for 46 more days until we finally get the economic and fiscal forecast from the Chancellor, to know what he is going to have to say. He is going to have to downgrade his growth forecast for this year for the fourth time in 18 months and downgrade his growth forecast for next year. As I have explained, we already have £46 billion more borrowing in the pipeline, and unemployment is now rising. He is going to have to admit that borrowing will be billions higher still than at the time of his last forecast. The Prime Minister says:

“You can’t borrow your way out of a debt crisis”,

but he just doesn’t get it. [Interruption.] No, he doesn’t get it. Because with growth flatlining, and with today’s bleak news of rising unemployment, the Chancellor’s failing plan is leading to not lower borrowing but higher borrowing than he planned.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Whatever the Government’s policy, the Opposition’s policy is to borrow more to increase demand. Is there a limit on the borrowing?

Ed Balls: I will return to the hon. Gentleman and his party in a moment. They gave the Government some very good advice 18 months ago, but unfortunately it was not heeded.

Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman has talked about infrastructure and the A11. Labour cancelled the road-building programme, whereas we are breaking new ground on the A11. In addition, so much red tape was put in place that we are now 83rd in the world for regulation. Does he think that is helping small businesses in our country?

Ed Balls: To be fair to the hon. Lady, she is half on message, as she was back in January when she called for national police cuts, but not in Norfolk. That is little better than her neighbour over the border, the hon. Member for West Suffolk. I am in favour of the dualling of the A11. I personally wish we had done that, given that we did a lot of road-building and investment, but for some reason Norwich City season ticket holders did not have a strong enough voice in this House. Perhaps Mr Charles Clarke is to blame.

Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): Is my right hon. Friend as outraged as I am by the series of east of England Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs who choose to ignore the massive cuts to programmes such as Building Schools for the Future, which would have rebuilt schools in their own areas?

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is being unfair. The hon. Member for West Suffolk campaigned to reverse the cuts in Building Schools for the Future, as we know. To be fair to the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), she has campaigned for fewer cuts in Norfolk. If only she did not take such a regional view.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I congratulate the shadow Chancellor on listening to what I said in this place a year ago and on the major change in Labour’s economic policy in the last three weeks, which has gone unnoticed. Last year’s policy of a permanent reduction in VAT has changed to the far more credible policy of a temporary reduction in VAT, which is precisely what I argued for in this place a year ago. Will the shadow Chancellor listen carefully if I have the chance to make a point about national insurance in this debate?

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is a leading indicator, not a lagging indicator.

The fact is that the deficit plan is going too far and too fast. As I have said, we should stop putting party political advantage before the national interest. That is why the right thing to do to help struggling families and businesses in the constituencies of Members across the House is to adopt a plan now to get our deficit down by getting our economy moving. We should repeat the bank bonus tax; build 25,000 homes; guarantee a job for 100,000 young people; genuinely bring forward long-term investment projects in schools, transport and roads; temporarily reverse the damaging rise in VAT, which would mean £450 for a couple with children; have an immediate one-year cut in VAT to 5% on home improvement, repairs and maintenance; and introduce a one-year national insurance tax break for every small firm that takes on extra workers.

The Chancellor does not have to wait 46 days. He can bring forward emergency resolutions in this House next week and we will support them. He can call the plan what he likes. If he wants to appease The Spectator, he can call it plan A-plus. That is fine by us. Britain just needs a plan that works for jobs and growth, which is why he should adopt Labour’s five-point plan for jobs and growth.

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): While we are on the topic of football, may I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his ample use of the substitutes’ bench, although it was of course not him who used the substitutes’ bench? What would be the cost of his temporary cut in VAT, how does he propose to finance it, and what would be the gain in GDP growth as a result?

Ed Balls: “Jesse is the Clark Kent of British politics.” Unfortunately, that was said by the other candidate for the leadership of the Conservative party, Boris Johnson. What an endorsement for the hon. Gentleman to have on his own website! The fact is that the deficit reduction plan is going too far—

Jesse Norman rose—

Ed Balls: Get back in your phone box, I am answering the question. We need a slower pace of deficit reduction, not the £40 billion more that the Chancellor boasted of. An injection now to get the economy growing and unemployment coming down is the best way to get our deficit down. People do not have to take it from me; that is what the IMF and the OECD are advising the Chancellor to do. They say, “If the economy gets into sustained contraction, slow down the pace of consolidation.” I will give the hon. Gentleman another go.

Jesse Norman: We are all enjoying the shadow Chancellor’s vaudeville act, but he has failed to answer the question. I am interested in what would be the actual cost of the VAT cut that he proposes and how he would fund it.

Ed Balls: The hon. Gentleman would know the answer if he listened. I said that attempting to go £40 billion faster in deficit reduction than the plan the Chancellor inherited is not working, but pushing borrowing up. The right thing to do now is to expand demand—[ Interruption. ] Look, a one-year cut in VAT in its own terms would cost £12 billion. The question is what would be the impact on jobs, growth and deficit reduction. I am afraid that the Chancellor is borrowing not £12 billion more, but £46 billion more. The flatlining economy and rising unemployment mean that his deficit reduction plans are going off track. He should take the advice of the IMF and the OECD and change course.

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con) rose—

Charlie Elphicke rose—

Ed Balls: I will make a little more progress, but I will take interventions from people who have not intervened. Good grief, I have given the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) enough of the wrong type of publicity already and do not want to do his career any more damage.

There is a credible alternative. Why will the Chancellor not act? He used to be so confident that his plan was working. It is patently not working. He and his cheerleaders on the Government Benches claim that however bad things get, he is trapped by the financial markets. He cannot take the advice of the IMF and the OECD and change course because it would lead to higher interest rates and recession. However, the IMF has said that we cannot have credibility without growth.

The markets know that rising unemployment and zero growth are undermining the Chancellor’s deficit reduction plan. One chief economist in the City at Baring Asset Management said last week:

“Growth is essential if the UK is to be able to finance new debt, repay old debt and convince the markets and credit rating agencies there is a modicum of competency in policymaking. The longer we pursue current policies, the more likely it becomes that the UK will be the next target”.

That is the real market view. We know that the credit rating agencies put out their press releases, but the real view, as the IMF has told us, is that having a flatlining economy and rising unemployment is the wrong way to get the deficit down. As I said, even the Chancellor’s friend at the IMF has said that

“growth is necessary for fiscal credibility”.

Britain has no growth. That is why our Chancellor is losing credibility.

Harriett Baldwin: Will the shadow Chancellor confirm that cutting VAT to 17.5% would cost £12.5 billion a year? Would that not simply shift demand from one year to the next?

Ed Balls: The Chancellor’s whipping team really must tell people to listen to the answers before they intervene.

The Nobel prize winner himself, Chris Pissarides, says in the New Statesman tomorrow that a temporary VAT cut is the right way—[ Interruption. ] I say to Government Members that Nobel prize winners who give good advice to the Chancellor should be listened to. Given that 70 more people are unemployed in the constituency of the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) than a year ago, perhaps she should start to listen too.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): I know that the shadow Chancellor is aware of the “Cut the VAT” campaign, which wants the Government to reduce the VAT on home repairs, maintenance and improvement work from 20% to 5%. Its analysis shows that when the rate was 17.5%, cutting it to 5% would have injected £1.4 billion into the UK economy in the first year alone. I wonder whether he is aware that the campaign is backed by 49 business organisations.

Ed Balls: I know the details of that campaign, although I do not know all 49 members. I know that it argues for a widening of our proposal.

One business organisation, the Federation of Small Businesses, has said:

“the Government’s growth strategy is just not working…We must see a cut in VAT to five per cent in the construction and tourism sectors to boost consumer demand.”

The business demand for a change of course is growing.

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): My constituents, my right hon. Friend’s constituents and constituents across this country are seeing growth—growth in their gas and electricity bills and in their food bills. That double whammy is hitting our constituents on top of the mess that the Chancellor is making.

Ed Balls: Our constituents are seeing growth in VAT and in unemployment as well. The only thing that they are not seeing is growth in growth.

The markets are not the real reason why the Chancellor is determined to cling on to his failing economic policy. There are two obstacles in his way. The first is the coalition agreement. We know how desperate the Chief Secretary and the Deputy Prime Minister are for the Chancellor to stick to the deficit reduction plan, because they steamrollered their colleagues into signing up to a manifesto that explicitly rejected it. The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto stated:

“If spending is cut too soon, it would undermine the much-needed recovery and cost jobs.”

They were right, which is why there are so few of them here for this debate. They all know that their leaders graphically predicted before the election the very calamity that has happened after the election. The fact is, any successful coalition has to have the flexibility to change course when things go wrong.

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

Wise words from Lord Keynes, and he was a Liberal. He must listen to the current incoherent, confused and contradictory ramblings of the Business Secretary and turn in his grave.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): The shadow Chancellor is certainly showing flexibility in concluding that in time, it would be acceptable for VAT to reach 20%. When did he reach that decision, and will he be able to persuade his colleagues, who we know are so adamantly against VAT at 20%?

Ed Balls: When I became shadow Chancellor six months ago, I said that I could not responsibly come along here and make commitments on what would be in our manifesto in four years’ time. What I can do is give the Chancellor good advice, and a temporary cut now is the right thing for growth and jobs in our economy.

It is not just Labour Members who support me on this. Listen to the former Liberal Democrat leader, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy), who said on “Question Time” last Thursday that he was

“more at the Ed Balls end of the argument than the George Osborne end of the argument.”

In saying that—Superman will like this—he joined me and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in urging a change of course. Charles Kennedy, Boris Johnson and me—now that would be a coalition.

It is clear that the plan is not working. The markets know it, and so, increasingly, do the Chancellor’s coalition colleagues, but there is a second reason why this very political Chancellor will not budge. The clue was in the Prime Minister’s speech last week in Manchester. What did he say of the Chancellor? How did he describe his closest political friend? As “the man who would be king”. It was a very strange choice of book, because it is the story of two fantasists who end up stripped, beaten, tortured and forced to beg for their lives. That is some people’s idea of a good night out, but the idea that the Prime Minister should say that of the Chancellor is somewhat odd.

Anyway, there we are—“the man who would be king”. It was not in the printed text of the Prime Minister’s speech but was another slip from him. However, it is so revealing, because those words show why the Chancellor just cannot admit that he has got it wrong, even at a time when, at the weekend, The Sunday Times doubted his judgment. To change course now would be to admit that the Chancellor has got the key economic judgment of this Parliament wrong, and that would be a terrible blow to his ambitions. We therefore see him putting politics before the national economic interest.

Ploughing on with a failing policy is not leadership; it is the antithesis of leadership. It is not the making of King George; it is the madness of King George. A Chancellor without the strength to change his mind is a King Canute Chancellor, who says that he will stay the waves even as the tide turns before him. A man who would be king? He is a Chancellor exposed naked before the crowd, an emperor with no clothes, a Chancellor heading for a fall. I give him some good advice. For his sake, for his party’s sake and in the national interest, he needs to change course and do so quickly. It could be the making of the man.

In the face of the new global slowdown, we desperately need the Chancellor to rise above the here and now and see the need to change course, have a plan for growth and jobs, kick-start our economy and get us out of the slow lane. We need a balanced and credible plan on jobs, growth and the deficit, and action now before it is too late—Labour’s five-point plan for jobs and growth. I commend the motion to the House.

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Posted October 12th, 2011 by Ed's team