The secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, the Right Honourable Dr John Vincent Cable, was back where he belonged today: on the Government’s naughty step.
He had gone to ground last night after a day of pre-budget mischief-making but was forced back out into the open as MPs gathered for prime ministers’ questions. It is here that the choreography of the coalition can be studied as positioning on the government front bench is as eagerly studied as Sir Alex Ferguson’s Saturday team sheet.
There is a spot well down the bench where those out of favour with Number 10 and its power brokers can skulk – either happily because they are close enough to the exit to bolt or sadly because they are on the way out.
Both options applied to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley who recently set a coalition record for occupying it. Indeed, some thought he had been there long enough to claim squatters’ rights.
But Vince, who had already spent several PMQs there, was never likely to give it up for long, and in making his return yesterday, allowed a grateful health secretary the opportunity to at last find a quiet corner to hide in. The relief of knowing in advance that the naughty step was already booked for the session was obvious on the faces of other serial offenders like Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, whose own chances of an early return cannot have been hurt by Liberal Democrats pronouncing him “one of us”.
But Vince’s decision yesterday to confirm recently written doubts about the government’s lack of strategic direction on growth two weeks before the budget made him the naughty step’s obvious occupant.
You could tell just how much trouble he was in by the placing of Eric Pickles, the man who gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “cabinet heavyweight”, right next to him.
Vince adopted a scowl so redolent of those figures carved in stone above the doors of the Minster in York, the town of his birth, that you would think the original masons must have met his ancestors. But it is more likely tied to his exclusion from the main decision making over the budget and its effects. He believes he should be part of both because of his present job and his experience as a working economist.
Instead he could only peer up the bench in the direction of “the quad”, the Coalition’s own Gang of Four, who have reserved the right to sort out the way ahead.
Apart from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, Vince has had to swallow his leader and Deputy PM Nick Clegg as a member, not to mention Danny Alexander who had been sent out to buy some sweets and came back as chief secretary to the Treasury.
Indeed PMQs had hardly begun before Dave was asked if he shared Vince’s doubts about the government’s direction of travel. The PM said no, but all eyes switched to Chancellor George, following reports that the two previous best buddies were presently using separate song sheets. From mansion tax to child credits, scrapping the 50p income tax rate to squeezing pension benefits for the better off, the Tory side of the coalition equation have found themselves with the dilemma of working out which group of their own supporters to hit most.
This was not lost on the usually raucous ranks of the recidivist wing of the party who were significantly quieter during the interchanges.
All of which made life easier for Ed Miliband as he perfected his Dave technique by calmly asking the PM questions about the detail of government policy, a subject on which he does not have a GCSE.
Ed first pleased his own side by asking what message Dave had for someone about to lose all his tax credits unless he finds extra work at a time of record unemployment. Then he added to Tory discomfort by asking what message he had for those among the squeezed middle about to lose child benefits.
The Tory side was ominously quiet as the Prime Minister said life was about difficult decisions.
As Vince prepared to escape from the overhang that is Eric Pickles, nominations for next week’s naughty step were already flooding in with the field being led by Tory MP Nadine Norries.
Sadly, Nadine does not qualify, as she is not on the front bench and, following an intervention in the FT yesterday, it is up to the reader to calculate her chances as the PM was asked for his comments on the following:
“The problem is that policy is being run by two public schoolboys who don’t know what it’s like to go to the supermarket and have to put things back on the shelves because they can’t afford it for their children’s lunchboxes. What’s worse, they don’t care either.”
Vince almost smiled.