Commons Confidential: Fox flinches and Crow crows

Just why does Bob Crow give Ed Miliband's office the heebie-jeebies?

Call Me Dave’s northern pet, Eric Pickles, is forever lecturing cash-strapped councils on the importance of belt-tightening in his fatwa on local government. Yet Big Eric’s own girth appears to be expanding alarmingly. Near his office in the Commons is a lift. The elevator often takes three people or, at a squash, four. Recently, an MP told my snout, the thing stopped and the door opened. Inside, filling the lift, was the single, brooding figure of Pickles.

I discovered that Colonel Patrick Mercer is the keeper of a Gladstone axe. The Tory MP for Newark possesses a chopper swung by his illustrious predecessor before Gladstone quit his seat and the Conservatives for the Liberals and four stints in Downing Street. Mercer insists it is of sentimental rather than financial value. Apparently there are sufficient Gladstone axes in circulation to fell Sherwood Forest. Gladstone was an enthusiastic woodworker when he wasn’t saving fallen women. A world away from Cameron’s Angry Birds.

Liam Fox, the former defence secretary, is a Tory trooper capable of remaining cool under fire. A hack in a bar introduced himself to the neocon and then announced: “You touched my mother’s breasts.” In many a watering hole such an opening gambit would be the cue for a fight. I nearly dropped my pint, though I noticed Fox didn’t flinch. From the tenor of the ensuing conversation, I gathered that Dr Fox had been the woman’s GP, and the aforementioned event an NHS medical examination. Former patients and their extended families reminding Fox of his past profession is apparently an occupational hazard, hence the frozen face.

It’s an old local newspaper trick on a quiet news day, but Bernard Jenkin may well have winced when a survey by the Harwich and Manningtree Standard found only 6 per cent of constituents stopped on the street identified him as the Conservative MP for their corner of Essex. Boris Johnson may dream of a recognition level so low, now 99 per cent of Britain know he’s an untrustworthy, calculating blob of unlimited blond ambition after his leadership bicycle was punctured by Eddie Mair. Jenkin should console himself that anonymity is better than antipathy.

Ed Miliband informed the Durham miners he’ll speak at the 2014 gala after he was tickled by an enthusiastic reception in 2012. He was the first Labour leader to address the brass-bands-and-banners Big Meeting since Neil Kinnock in 1989. Miliband declined this year’s invitation, as he did in 2011, to avoid sharing a stage with the RMT’s trainstopper Bob Crow, whose outspokenness gives the leader’s office the heebie-jeebies. Your correspondent has no such qualms and shall speak alongside Mr Crowbar and Unite’s “Red Len” McCluskey on 13 July.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Just why does Bob Crow give Ed Miliband's office the heebie-jeebies? Photograph: Getty Images

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.