Outside Westminster it was all happening. “George’s stamp duty bonanza” was electrifying the housing market. Hedge fund managers were bleary eyed after an evening panic-buying their country mansions in time to avoid a surcharge of a million or two. The press was squared, the middle classes quite prepared. What could be a greater privilege for a young up-and-coming Treasury minister than the task of introducing to a Commons on tenterhooks the legislation for the historic change?
So where was he? David Gauke, the minister in question, was a no-show. “I am, frankly, stunned,” declared Shabana Mahmood from the opposition front bench. “As far as I can see there is no… Treasury minister present,” said Labour’s Thomas Docherty, superfluously. “Is this normal practice?”
“It is to be deprecated – very strongly deprecated,” intoned Speaker Bercow (among much else).
Valiantly, coalition MPs filibustered in the desperate hope that Gauke would turn up. Iain Duncan Smith, schadenfreude oozing from every pore at the Treasury’s discomfiture, apologised “on behalf of the Government” for Gauke’s absence before proposing that “my ministers and I will see this debate through”. (This presumably triggered a frantic series of Treasury texts to the hapless Gauke as there was nothing Osborne would have liked less than to entrust his precious measure to IDS.
The Speaker suggested that Ms Mahmood begin the debate. “I am not sure that I can respond to an opening speech that I have not heard,” she said, reasonably enough.
A flustered, visibly panting, minister finally arrived to sardonic cheers. “Good afternoon,” said Docherty, again superfluously. Poor Gauke. It must have been like one of those nightmares in which you are trying to run but your legs feel leaden. Breathlessly he apologised for his – “inadvertent though it was” – late arrival.
The debate itself was uneventful as the Opposition was not actually opposing. Ukip’s Mark Reckless commended the stamp duty reform in terms so erudite and unpopulist that you wondered whether his heart was really in his new party. Indeed he wistfully described a past encounter with the Tory chairman Grant Shapps, or as he put it “the Right Honourable Member – at that stage at least he was my friend”.
The Tory Dominic Raab worried that given the steady rise in house prices the higher stamp duty rates would hit ever more home owners “by stealth”. If the Government didn’t index the new thresholds “we risk ending up over time robbing middle-class Peter to pay working-class Paul”. A prospect he clearly found too appalling to contemplate.
At the end Gauke apologised again. Oddly he didn’t say what had kept him. Perhaps he was buying a house.Reuse content