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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The Secret Civil Servant: Let’s hope cabinet followed the civil service formula on Brexit away day

 Though it’s probably best if they skipped the trust exercises.

It’s enough to make your blood run cold. 

“And before we get started, I want everyone to take a post-it note, and I want everyone to write down what they personally want to achieve from this away day. When you’ve done that, please come and stick them on this whiteboard for discussion.” 

Every Civil Service Away Day adheres to a very strict formula. And regardless of how categorically useless it was, afterwards everyone is duty bound to say what a roaring success it was and what a lovely day they’ve had, just like the couple who have narrowly missed out on the speedboat on Bullseye. 

The talk around the cabinet Brexit away day suggests they stuck to this winning format, subject to a bit of fine tuning.

To start with, there will be the obligatory ice breakers, which nobody has ever enjoyed. Considering the various tensions, it’s probably best if the cabinet skip the trust exercises or Chequers will end up looking like a dressing station at Rorke’s Drift.

It is important to remember that anybody doing anything at an away day is automatically granted the title “facilitator”, and everything they do on the day, no matter how mundane, is an act of “facilitation”. It’s not clear who was given this job for the cabinet, but I imagine it was probably Gavin Barwell. 

There will then be an introductory address by the Big Boss. This will focus on strategy, ideally containing little or no actual substance. That will pose few problems to this administration. No doubt the ambition will be somewhat greater, with whole conversations without discernible content whatsoever, just a mixture of non alphabetic sounds, semaphore and exhalation all carefully minuted by a mime artist.

A question and answer session will usually follow, when the most ambitious members of staff will try and ask the most tediously self aware question, to raise their profile. The worst are usually young career focussed men, who may even introduce themselves before embarking on their question. 

I like to call these people, “wankers”. 

This, however, can be occasionally fraught with danger: at a recent departmental away day, a system had been set up so that participants could submit questions which would appear on a screen beside the panel. What they hadn’t realised was that questions could be submitted using any name they wished. By the time Sir Anthony Hopkins asked for the fourth time which was Sir Tim Barrow’s favourite Spice Girl, the chair couldn’t bring the session to a close quick enough. 

It’s unlikely the PM will hold such a session, lest she have to tell a number of cabinet ministers to facilitate off for repeatedly asking if they can be Prime Minister.

After that, the day will be split up into breakout sessions. These will be themed and are usually split by interest such as policy vs strategy, or delivery vs implementation. Ideally these will make no sense, go on too long, and be led by a really evangelical individual who while technically speaking English, will be a real struggle unless you’re up to speed on your reputational dispositives. That should work just fine at Chequers. As with civil servants, I imagine there are a number of ways to split the cabinet's attendees. Plotters vs The Deluded could work neatly, or perhaps  Cake vs Eat it.

The cabinet's away day was rumoured to include a separate session led by various ambassadors and experts on EU member states. I’m sure we can all agree,  increased cabinet-level understanding of European perspectives will come in very, very handy once we activate Article 50.

Then it’ll all have been done for another year. Time to make a quick getaway to the pub for the obligatory post away day drink, otherwise Gavin Barwell will lose the deposit he paid on that function room at The Jolly Taxpayer. 

Let’s hope some consensus is reached. Early reports already suggest it was a roaring success. I’m not holding my breath. There were rumours that the meeting wouldn’t be allowed to conclude until key agreements had been reached, a bit like a governmental equivalent of Mad Max 3: Beyond the Thunderdome. What with David Davis’s reference earlier this week, it’s good to see that the franchise has finally become recognised as a significant political blueprint. 

Regardless of the decisions that are or aren’t reached this week at Chequers, it’s unlikely that when Jim Barnier shows us the mystery prize, it’s going to be a bespoke free trade agreement with all the trimmings. Commiserations, Prime Minister. Let’s see what you could’ve won. 

It doesn’t really matter. We’ve had a lovely day. 

The author is a civil servant in the British government, writing anonymously because Gavin Barwell probably won’t find any of this funny. While based on real events, parts of the above are embellished for comic effect.