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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The three avoidable mistakes that Theresa May has made in the Brexit negotiations

She ignored the official Leave campaign, and many Remainers, in pursuing Brexit in the way she has.

We shouldn’t have triggered Article 50 at all before agreeing an exit deal

When John Kerr, the British diplomat who drafted Article 50 wrote it, he believed it would only be used by “a dictatorial regime” that, having had its right to vote on EU decisions suspended “would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out”.

The process was designed to maximise the leverage of the remaining members of the bloc and disadvantage the departing state. At one stage, it was envisaged that any country not ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be expelled under the process – Article 50 is not intended to get “the best Brexit deal” or anything like it.

Contrary to Theresa May’s expectation that she would be able to talk to individual member states, Article 50 is designed to ensure that agreement is reached “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”, as I wrote before the referendum result.

There is absolutely no reason for a departing nation to use Article 50 before agreement has largely been reached. A full member of the European Union obviously has more leverage than one that is two years away from falling out without a deal. There is no reason to trigger Article 50 until you’re good and ready, and the United Kingdom’s negotiating team is clearly very far from either being “good” or “ready”.

As Dominic Cummings, formerly of Vote Leave, said during the campaign: “No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what the process was going to yield…that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

If we were going to trigger Article 50, we shouldn’t have triggered it when we did

As I wrote before Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, 2017 is very probably the worst year you could pick to start leaving the European Union. Elections across member states meant the bloc was in a state of flux, and those elections were always going to eat into the time. 

May has got lucky in that the French elections didn’t result in a tricky “co-habitation” between a president of one party and a legislature dominated by another, as Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a majority for his new party, République en Marche.

It also looks likely that Angela Merkel will clearly win the German elections, meaning that there won’t be a prolonged absence of the German government after the vote in September.

But if the British government was determined to put the gun in its own mouth and pull the trigger, it should have waited until after the German elections to do so.

The government should have made a unilateral offer on the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom right away

The rights of the three million people from the European Union in the United Kingdom were a political sweet spot for Britain. We don’t have the ability to enforce a cut-off date until we leave the European Union, it wouldn’t be right to uproot three million people who have made their lives here, there is no political will to do so – more than 80 per cent of the public and a majority of MPs of all parties want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – and as a result there is no plausible leverage to be had by suggesting we wouldn’t protect their rights.

If May had, the day she became PM, made a unilateral guarantee and brought forward legislation guaranteeing these rights, it would have bought Britain considerable goodwill – as opposed to the exercise of fictional leverage.

Although Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s proposal on mutually shared rights has worried many EU citizens, the reality is that, because British public opinion – and the mood among MPs – is so sharply in favour of their right to remain, no one buys that the government won’t do it. So it doesn’t buy any leverage – while an early guarantee in July of last year would have bought Britain credit.

But at least the government hasn’t behaved foolishly about money

Despite the pressure on wages caused by the fall in the value of the pound and the slowdown in growth, the United Kingdom is still a large and growing economy that is perfectly well-placed to buy the access it needs to the single market, provided that it doesn’t throw its toys out of the pram over paying for its pre-agreed liabilities, and continuing to pay for the parts of EU membership Britain wants to retain, such as cross-border policing activity and research.

So there’s that at least.

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

0800 7318496