George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street for PMQs earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Osborne's unwise joke mars a solid debut

The Chancellor misjudged the mood by joking about "Bennites" in response to a question on suicide bombing. 

George Osborne, to his credit, is a politician with a sense of humour. But at his PMQs debut it worked against him. The First Secretary of State (standing in for the EU-detained David Cameron) began by rightly noting how "proud" Hilary Benn's father, Tony, would have been to see his son at the despatch box. But he followed this with an unwise, pre-scripted joke: "We’re relieved there’s no Benn in the leadership contest but plenty of Bennites" (a nod to Jeremy Corbyn). After Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, had asked him a sober question on reports of Britain's youngest suicide bomber, that line fell like a lead balloon. One of the most crucial qualities at PMQs is nimbleness. By failing to excise that joke from his script, Osborne failed in this regard. 

Benn smartly denied the Chancellor the chance to deploy his favourite attack lines by devoting his six questions to national security and the Mediterranean refugee crisis, rather than the economy. Osborne's answers were solid enough (there were no further gaffes) but this was not territory on which the potential next Tory leader could dazzle. The closest thing to a flashpoint came when he challenged Labour to confirm its support for the government's new Extremism Bill. In response to the SNP's Angus Robertson, who asked whether the Chilcot report had been delayed until next year, Osborne replied that "it has been a long time coming and people I think are running out of patience" before recalling the "cross-party alliance between the SNP and the Conservatives to set up that inquiry earlier than it was". Robertson, unsurprisingly, was in no mood to build bridges, reminding the Chancellor that he and Cameron voted for the Iraq war.  It was only towards the end of session that Osborne finally won the chance to boast about today's jobs and wages figures in response to planted Tory questions.

Aside from his ill-judged "Bennites" gag (which will be cited as evidence of his "nasty" streak), nothing today will have harmed Osborne's chances of succeeding Cameron, even if little will hae advanced him. But the simple fact that it was Osborne at the dispatch box gives him an advantage over his leadership rivals. Like Gordon Brown before him, a politician he resembles in so many respects, he will have more opportunities to make himself the "inevitable" successor. 

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.