How Osborne humiliated Tory minister Chloe Smith

Watch: Treasury minister gives car-crash interview on Newsnight after Osborne's fuel duty U-turn.

After George Osborne's surprise decision to scrap the rise in fuel duty, it was left to junior Treasury minister Chloe Smith to explain the government's behaviour on last night's Newsnight, with excruciating results (watch from 6:19 minutes). As Paxman repeatedly asked when she was told of the decision (one was reminded of his famous duel with Michael Howard), Smith could only reply that she wouldn't give a "running commentary" on government policy-making and that it had been "under discussion" for some weeks. Her humiliation continued as she was asked to reconcile the move with her statement last month that "it is not certain that cutting fuel duty would have a positive effect on families or businesses". Smith simply replied: "It's important to do what you can to help households and businesses".

One was left with the impression of a junior minister hopelessly trying to account for the government's chaotic decison-making. As Paul Waugh revealed on his blog, as late as 12:30pm Tory backbenchers were being told to take the line that Labour's call for a freeze in fuel duty was "hypocrisy of the worst kind". He notes: "The Quad did indeed discuss it a month ago, but we still don't know exactly when the final decision was made. Surely not after Cabinet and after the 12.30 Line to Take?" If so, it would explain Smith's supreme discomfort last night.

In Westminster, Osborne is known as "the submarine" for his habit of surfacing only for set-piece events such as the Budget and retreating under water at the first sign of trouble (one is reminded of Gordon Brown, who was nicknamed "Macavity" after the cat "who wasn't there"). And so it proved yesterday. Had he more respect for his Treasury colleagues, he would surely have appeared himself and spared Smith her humiliation. Unfortunately for the 30-year-old minister, who is envied by older Conservative MPs looked over for promotion, she will find few sympathisers on the Tory backbenches.

Chloe Smith, the economic secretary to the Treasury, struggle to explain the U-turn on fuel duty on last night's Newsnight. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Why a Labour split may be in the interests of both sides

Divorce may be the best option, argues Nick Tyrone. 

Despite everything that is currently happening within the Labour Party - the open infighting amongst party officials, the threat of MPs being deselected, an increasingly bitter leadership contest between two people essentially standing on the same policy platform – the idea of a split is being talked down by everyone involved. The Labour Party will “come together” after the leadership election, somehow. The shared notion is that a split would be bad for everyone other than the Tories.

Allow me to play devil’s advocate. What the Corbynistas want is a Labour Party that is doctrinarily pure. However small that parliamentary party might be for the time being is irrelevant. The basic idea is to build up the membership into a mass movement that will then translate into seats in the House of Commons and eventually, government. You go from 500,000 members to a million, to two million, to five million until you have enough to win a general election.

The majority of the parliamentary Labour party meanwhile believe that properly opposing the Tories in government through conventional means, i.e. actually attacking things the Conservatives put forth in parliament, using mass media to gain public trust and then support, is the way forward. Also, that a revitalisation of social democracy is the ideology to go with as opposed to a nebulous form of socialism.

These two ways of looking at and approaching politics not only do not go together, they are diametric opposites. No wonder the infighting is so vicious; there is no middle way between Corbynism and the bulk of the PLP.

I understand that the Labour MPs do not want to give up on their party, but I don’t see how the membership is shifting in their favour any time soon. Most talk around a split understandably comes back to 1981 and the SDP very quickly yet consider this: the most defections the SDP ever achieved were 28. If there was a split now, it would probably involve the vast majority of the PLP, perhaps even 80 per cent of it – a very, very different proposition. There is also clearly a large number of people out there who want a centre-left, socially democratic, socially liberal party – and polls suggest that for whatever reason the Liberal Democrats cannot capitalise on this gap in the market. Some sort of new centre-left party with 150+ MPs and ex-Labour donors to kick it off just might.

Of course, a split could be a total disaster, at least in the short term, and allow the Tories further general election victories over the next decade. But let’s be honest here – given where we are, isn’t that going to happen anyhow? And if a split simply results in what happened in the 1980s recurring, thus eventually leading to a Labour Party capable of winning a general election again, would members of the PLP currently wondering what to do next not consider it worth it just for that?

Nick Tyrone is Chief Executive of Radix, the think tank for the radical centre.