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.

Getty
Show Hide image

The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism