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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.