Political sketch: Cabinet millionaires, put your hands up

The Labour leader had them squirming, as he challenged the Front Bench to nod if they'd be quids in

Every year the Chancellor of the Exchequer stands outside No 11 Downing Street, waving his little red briefcase in the air, asking us to guess what's in it. Today we knew the answer: his sandwiches.

In times past it contained the secrets of the Budget hidden away from the nation, and in Gordon Brown's time hidden even the Prime Minister - only to be divulged to the masses when the time was right.

But thanks to the coalition, where the messenger is at last more important than the message, there were no secrets left to divulge.

Hugh Dalton was forced to resign as Chancellor when he inadvertently tipped off a journalist about some of the tax changes in the 1947 budget on his way into the House of Commons to deliver his speech. But so many Ministers leaked this one that, had the same rule applied, the Government Front Bench would have been reduced to Ken Clarke; only because he'd been having a nap when the details were handed out.

As it was, the present incumbent George Osborne looked rather relieved as he appeared outside his official front door on his way to tell us nothing we did not know already. Being Chancellor during the worst recession for 80 years meant that he stepped smartly into the car that was to carry him the dangerous 150 yards through the imminent recipients of his largesse into the Commons.

There he had to endure what was more than the usually irrelevant Prime Ministers Questions, as a sort of poor man's hors d'oeuvres to the main course. Comedy was provided by the Paymaster General, Francis Maude, who found himself on his feet finishing off queries about government business, as Dave, George and the first team slipped in behind him for PMQs.

Mild-mannered Francis - whose job, by the way, has nothing to do with pay, mastery or anything remotedly connected to Generals - found to his horror as he sat down that he was jammed between Dave and his deputy Nick Clegg as battle was abut to commence.

Dave, so often the hapless victim at PMQs, seemed positively relaxed as he realised his tormentor Ed Miliband had to save his best lines to have a go at George and his budget. How right he was.

The Prime Minister took time out to tease Speaker Bercow whose unpopularity in Tory circles, somewhere near to that of Arthur Scargill, was only enhanced by his "kaleidescope" speech to the Queen yesterday. George nervously munched his way through what seemed a pocketful of throat lozenges as his deputy Danny Alexander, whose own sandwiches had hopefully been smuggled in through the same red box, looked as confused as ever about why he was there.

Suddenly PMQs was up and Dave was down. Francis Maude popped up like a cork out of a bottle and fled down the bench and Speaker Bercow, as befits a grand parliamentary occasion, did a runner - leaving the wonderfully named Chairman of Ways and Means to referee the upcoming bout.

George spoke for an hour, gazed at in what appeared to be awe by the PM and trepidation by Nick Clegg, who was obviously fearful something he and Danny had not been told about might be sneaked out.

Normally the budget speech is marked by cheers and jeers as the Chancellor doles out his goodies, but with tax and spending plans already known, the opposing sides didn't quite know when to exercise their lungs. George was on good enough form to portray a 0.1 per cent increase in the forecast for growth to 0.8 per cent this year as some sort of minor miracle - despite forecasting three times that much just 18 months ago. He was on even better form as he demonstrated that cutting the top rate from 50p to 45p was five times better news for us - and not the rich who would be clobbered anyway by a crackdown on tax dodging.

The thought of the UK's rich turning away from their televisions in tears seemed a bit strong for Business Secretary Vince Cable, who had managed to turn up late enough to find a place close enough to the exit in case things got out of hand. But George, having promised to lay about the wealthy with a big stick, finally confirmed everything in this morning's papers, and sat down. The PM smiled, Nick looked relieved, Danny looked for his sandwiches and the Chancellor sat back with a flourish.

Then Ed Miliband stood up and asked how many of the Cabinet's many millionaires would gain from the 45p tax cut. He invited them to stick their hands up if they were going to benefit personally.

Clearly talking about people's wealth is bad form in Tory circles, and the Front Bench seemed shocked into silence as Ed displayed his lack of manners by going on about it.

People earning a million would get a £40,000 tax cut, said Ed, and £250,000 more if they picked up £5m. Some of the people at the poor end of the ladder would lose £4,000 a year in benefits.

Ed had been tipped to fall on his face over the Budget following Labour's own less-than-consistent record on taxes - not to mention its own handling of the economy during the reign of GB, who must have been turning in his grump anyway at the thought of telling the people what the government was planning.

But the new Labour leader had them squirming as he challenged the Government Front Bench to nod if they would be quids in after the budget.

We are no longer all in it together, said Ed, as his own side finally realised he was on a roll and found their voice.

Dave and George looked a bit shell-shocked. This one will run all the way to the General Election.

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

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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.