Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Anyone would think an election was imminent


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Indy Politics

Nick Clegg probably doesn’t suffer from the disorder of “maso-sadism”, the term David Cameron startlingly coined while taunting Ed Balls, before confessing that he had meant “masochism”. If it was Clegg’s thing, he would have positively enjoyed squirming at the acute embarrassment of nodding robotically during a speech by a Chancellor he will soon be doing everything he can to disown come the election. Instead he was as far away as it’s possible to be without actually leaving the country: in Penzance.

Whether he missed much is debatable. The Chancellor got away with it. In fact that hardly does justice to the ecstasy with which his backbenchers waved their order papers after he sat down.

The rabbit – his reform of stamp duty – duly bounded out of his conjurer’s hat. Never mind that even with all that austerity he had only managed to halve the deficit, rather than eliminate it as promised. Or that Labour’s last Chancellor, Alistair Darling, had been roundly ridiculed for intending to do just that back in 2010 – a point that Darling himself made, saying with characteristic understatement that the Chancellor’s “view used to be that that would not be a terribly good thing”.

Even the jokes were a bit better than normal – well some of them anyway. Having improbably unveiled as a triumph of Coalition science policy that Britain would play a “lead role” in the exploration of Mars, Osborne added: “We have often gazed at the barren and desolate wastelands of the red [red = Labour, get it?] planet, and we have long given up hope of finding intelligent life there.”

Ed Balls did as well as he could, given the tourniquet of fiscal constraint which Labour has applied to itself. And given what a highly political Autumn Statement it was – a £3.5bn tax hit on the banks, tackling tax-shy multinationals like Google and keeping the freeze on fuel duty even though the oil price is tumbling.

Anyone would think there was an election coming.

Cameron made a rather peculiar jibe. He said Balls, who intended to be “tough on the deficit and tough on the causes of the deficit” was himself “one of the causes of the deficit… I think we’ve just found the first ever example of political maso-sadism!”

Balls sought to turn the comment back on Osborne. True, he initially fluffed it by saying the PM had “let the bag out of the cat”. But he then added that the term meant enjoying both suffering and inflicting pain. Balls went on: “We know the Chancellor’s views on the first; it seems, from the way he smiled when he announced the tax credits cuts, that he is rather enjoying the second as well.”

No doubt the Chancellor’s statement was the deeply significant determinant of next May’s electoral battleground. But for the rest of us masosadism ruled the day.