Give him a tin of WD-40 to keep his cogs turning
AMIXED day for the Treasury in the Commons. George Osborne had a fine old time, happily picking fights and telling that vain cankerworm Dennis Skinner (Lab, Bolsover) it was time he retired. Cue hoots from several sides.
Less encouragingly for the Government, the new Treasury Chief Secretary, Danny Alexander, had his first go at the despatch box. As an Australian might say after finding the remains of his pet kangaroo crisped on a neighbour’s barbie: ‘Aw, mate, that was pretty ordinary.’
Mr Alexander, a bag of nerves, froze. He completely seized up and then produced a gobble of incoherent words. Before future parliamentary expeditions his fellow ministers might like to equip themselves with a tin of WD-40 to make sure his cogs keep turning.
Let us deal chiefly with Mr Osborne. Not for him the emollient way of the Prime Minister. A little context here: for the past five years, Shadow Chancellor Osborne had to take much of the ordure piled on the Tories by the Labour Government. In part that goes with the territory. In part it is Mr Osborne’s character. He can assume a nasal, emphatic air at the despatch box, reinforcing remarks by pointing a crooked knuckle. This jars with opponents and does not always impress neutrals.
The person Mr Osborne reminded me of most yesterday was Gordon Brown circa 1997. He teased Opposition MPs for not being in step with international opinion and offered them arch advice on how they should conduct themselves. His answers kept noting apparent inconsistencies in the other side’s position. Pure Brown.
Andrew Love (Lab, Edmonton) regretted the ‘outbreak of competitive austerity across Europe’, with various countries announcing deficitcutting measures. Mr Osborne immediately saw this through the prism of past Labour arguments. He noted that ‘for years we had to put up with lectures from Labour about how Europe didn’t agree with us!’
Ian Austin (Lab, Dudley) sought to make an intervention. Mr Osborne agreed to take it, if only because he hoped Mr Austin could tell us the whereabouts of his friend Mr Brown. Much as one understood his reason for going on the attack – Mr Austin is himself a pungent partisan – the Osborne response felt needlessly aggressive. But the Tory benches like it. They are slowly getting the hang of confrontation.
These exchanges came during the last day of the Queen’s Speech debate. Another big crowd. It really does feel better in the Commons at present: attentive faces, cannier questions, everything quicker and more adult.
The earlier row with Mr Skinner was hardly grown-up but the many people who find Skinner a predictable bore will have enjoyed it. The 78-year-old had attacked the Royal Family, saying he hoped the cuts would reduce the Queen’s Civil List payments.
Mr Osborne did not dignify this with a proper reply. Mr Skinner has for years interrupted Mr Osborne with allegations that he used to take drugs. So far as I know, these allegations have nothing to them but because Mr Skinner utters them in the Commons, he can not be sued.
OSBORNE simply told Mr Skinner that if he was interested in saving money, ‘perhaps early retirement is something he could consider’. Mr Skinner was furious. He rose to his feet again, mouth agape like a goldfish. The House laughed at him.
For the next ten minutes Mr Skinner, trying to retrieve esteem, reverted to his drugs accusations. He did some nose gestures and said, ‘how many lines have you had today?’ For one of his great age, it did not seem wildly mature. Mr Osborne again snapped: ‘ Go take your pension!’ More laughter. Mr Skinner left the Chamber a short while later.
All this helped draw attention away from the uncertain performance of Mr Alexander, who was thrown into disarray by a comparatively straightforward question from Tom Watson (Lab, West Bromwich E) about David Cameron’s spin doctor. If Mr Alexander is to become an efficient budget cutter he will need to become less flabby.