NOSTALGIC fans of children’s telly of the Seventies and Eighties were perhaps the only people to find some cheer during a spending review marked by deficits, pay freezes, austerity and cuts.
It was a wisecrack by shadow chancellor Ed Balls that conjured childish visions of Rainbow – that timeless kids’ classic of camped-up puppetry and a grown man dressed as a bear.
Fixing George Osborne’s gaze across the Dispatch Box, Balls made play of a recent faux-pas by Barack Obama.
“His friends call him George, the president calls him Jeffrey,” goaded Balls.
“But everyone knows he is just Bungle!”
Emboldened by the laughter erupting on the Labour benches, Balls’ stand-up routine continued.
“Even Zippy on the front can’t stop smiling,” said Balls, catching Prime Minister David Cameron’s eye.
“Calm down, Zippy … calm down,” he chided.
Just when it appeared that he was about to liken Nick Clegg, Theresa May and William Hague to Rod, Jane and Freddy, Balls calmed down himself and got back to the serious business of dissecting the Chancellor’s spending review.
Ordinary people, Balls said, were paying the price for the UK government’s failure. Earlier, however, Osborne attempted to get his retaliation in first.
Announcing a plan to restore the Waterloo battlefield in time for its 200th anniversary, Osborne said the site was the scene of a “victory for a great coalition of forces against a discredited former regime that impoverished millions”.
It was a joke the encapsulated a major theme of Osborne’s announcements – namely that the difficult decisions he was having to make were all borne from Labour’s irresponsible behaviour when it was in government.
The early retaliation directed at Balls began in earnest at Prime Minister’s Questions when Cameron (or Zippy as he was to become known) cracked that it was “not just the people at Wimbledon who are saying new Balls please.”
If Cameron was later to regret his new nickname, he only had himself to blame.
The Prime Minister claimed that voters thought Ed Miliband was “Bert from the Muppets”, saying the Leader of the Opposition was more suited to “Sesame Street than Downing Street”.
In much the same way that Rainbow presenter Geoffrey Hayes might scold a talkative, oval-headed puppet – “it’s your own fault, Zippy. You started it”.