It was all rather touching. The Lib Dems (though not Nick Clegg) were out in force, like an extended family supporting a member on his big day – proud but a little worried. How did the unassuming highlander join the “quad” with Dave and George and Nick? And be the one to get a congratulatory pat on the shoulder from the Chancellor, slipping out after hearing his Big Statement? And how did any relative of ours turn out to be the Cabinet’s axeman?
Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander had been remorselessly strong-arming his ministerial colleagues in recent weeks to save money. Probably to allay those worries, his statement was all about spending it. Or at least promising to spend it, since, as his Labour shadow Chris Leslie gleefully pointed out, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce had complained that government infrastructure plans had so far proved “hot air, a complete fiction”.
Powerful as he is, his long, earnest and statistics-crammed rehearsal of what sounded at times like plans to rebuild the entire country – conducted against a continuous opposition hubbub – was hardly spellbinding oratory, despite an arresting way with the figures. The road to be resurfaced would run from “London to Beijing and back” if laid end to end. Another £6bn would allow “local authorities to fill the equivalent of 19 million potholes a year”.
We lurched dizzyingly between homely detail – “Any honourable member from the Prime Minister down who lives in Cornwall or who has driven there for their holidays will want to see a better A303” – to the broad historical sweep: “the largest programme of rail investment since Victorian times”; the “biggest … investment in our roads in 40 years”; the “greenest government ever”.
Overcome by hyperbole, Lib Dem backbencher Duncan Hames gushed: “This must be the most substantial and, dare I say, lengthy commitment to a stronger economy made by a Liberal in government from that despatch box since Lloyd George.” Since the party has hardly been overburdened with government office since, this is less remarkable than it sounds.
Nevertheless, the force may be with Alexander. When Speaker John Bercow waspishly reassured increasingly restive MPs after 27 minutes that the Chief Secretary was “nearing his end”, Alexander replied with equal waspishness: “I am certainly nearing the end of this statement.” Indeed. Career wise, this may be only the end of the beginning.Reuse content