Ed Balls, Shadow chancellor in the Labour Party (Photo: Reuters)
Ed Balls had a big job to do in budget debate

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls had a big job to do when he led the Commons attack on George Osborne's budget.

In the two last big set-piece economic debates – the autumn statement and the previous budget – he blew it with stumbling, uncharacteristically weak performances which left many wondering about his future.

But this time he did not just have to repair some of that damage to his own standing, he also needed to make up ground for a particularly poor speech delivered by his leader, Ed Miliband, in the budget announcement the day before.

On top of all that, and most importantly, he needed to deliver a coherent and believable response to what was a fairly complex but headline-grabbing package delivered with plenty of confidence by Osborne, and received with almost universal approval.

The verdict on his speech to MPs must be that it was a narrow and pretty heavily qualified success, good for his personal position, not quite so good on the budget detail.

For a start he seemed to have regained his despatch-box mojo. He was as robust, even confrontational as his reputation suggests – at one point slapping down a Tory MP, calling him "my son". He even appeared to be genuinely relaxed and enjoying himself.

He had a good line in jokes with the best being that when Osborne told the prime minister he was going to cut taxes for Bingo, Cameron thought he was referring to an old school chum.

That low level toff-baiting, inspired by the now infamous Tory "beer and bingo" tweet, underpinned most of his attack. There was the serious point about the Conservatives proving how out of touch they were and around their patronising attitude to working people.

And there was the jokey, class war stuff about Eton boys like Cameron and Boris Johnson looking down on St Pauls boys like Osborne, "The Tory party having a class war with itself."

He ridiculed Osborne for attempting to re-brand himself a "posh boy proletarian" with a new haircut, diet and Estuary accent.

He poked fun at Tory chairman Grant Shapps, the author of the bingo tweet, for going on a tour of the north of England looking for pigeon fanciers and indoor toilets.

And he blasted Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable for claiming he felt enslaved by being in coalition, declaring: "free the Cable one".

But there was a crunch, and it came around his more detailed response to Osborne's radical budget.

He said he had scoured the budget papers looking for any policies aimed at addressing the cost of living crisis and helping struggling working families and had found none.

Yet those scouring his speech for detailed rebuttals of Osborne's budget faced an equally challenging task. Ball's response to the biggest change, on pensions, amounted to "we will think about it", usually a precursor to backing something.

His strongest line was essentially the same line pushed by his boss the day before, to ask voters whether they feel better off today than they did in 2010.

This may still be a strong line for the general election. But if Osborne's calculations are right, Balls may yet find the answer to the question is starting to be "yes".