Political sketch: Chancellor runs out of places to hide

When the Speaker took the muzzle off Ed Balls, George was left eating his own words.

There were times during the Chancellor's Autumn Statement when Dave looked as if he had no idea what George was going on about and there were times when George didn't seem so sure either.

The end of the world as we know came in a speech that you could see came through teeth so gritted that ice-bound drivers would have been envious. It was all meant to be so different.

Just 12 months ago George promised that although we might have to dive into the brown stuff and swim a few lengths, we would be out of the ordure with a cup of tea and a biscuit by 2015, ready to reward him with sacks full of votes at the general election. Earlier today he revealed he had only been joking.

The day started well enough for the Chancellor but it was clearly a sign of things to come that it was deemed safer to drive the 150 yards to the House of Commons from the Treasury than face the more dangerous chance of bumping into a voter.

As he took his seat he was joined, with some apparent reluctance, by the other three members of what we now know is called the "quad", who apparently bear most responsibility for our present state of affairs.

Most embarrassed appeared to be the PM closely followed by his Deputy Nick, who usually manages to look disconnected from any of these occasions. Jammed between Nick and Dave, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and bruiser-in-training Danny Alexander, who still looks as if he has taken the wrong turning on a school trip.

Having leaked every bit of less than disastrous news from the Statement over the past week, the Chancellor knew he had run out of places to hide. When he moved into Number 11 he had been happy to take praise for establishing the Office of Budget Responsibility to give independent views on Government policies. These were the ones who would enhance his reputation by confirming Plan A was not only the right one, but also that it was on course. But that was before he decided he had to build an extension on to it.

And so it was the OBR which did for him by confirming borrowing would be massively up -- and growth substantially down.

His own side, seeing their own prospects of re-election receding, took the view that if they shouted loud enough they could drown out the bad news. This encouraged Labour to turn up the volume even further by repeating it.

As the Chancellor's voice moved inexorably up the Richter scale his body slumped even further onto the Despatch Box and the other members of the quad adopted the embarrassed look of those on the bus when a drunk gets on.

They seemed particularly pained when George, having already warned that the good times had been out on hold, added to the general misery by announcing he was extending the retirement age to 67 from 2026, which had more than a few MPs reaching for their calculators.

And on the eve of the biggest public sector strike in years he decided to follow up his appeal to them to reconsider with the announcement that, following their present two year pay freeze, he would be restricting future pay rises to 1 per cent. At least that cheered up his side.

As George finally subsided into his seat, the Speaker took the muzzle off Ed Balls and let him at his opponent. Ed took some pleasure in sticking George's words of a year ago up where they would cause most hurt. "Britain needs a new Chancellor or a new plan", said Ed, happy to point out that the Government will now borrow billions more than Labour had planned.

Earlier in the day the opinion polls showed that despite the dire news, Labour's lead over the Tories is still just 2 per cent, and that a large slice of the public continue to blame Labour for our present predicament.

Just one certainty. All MPs will be employed until 2015.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.