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.