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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser