Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Even the Treasury’s clever chaps don’t have all the answers

 

Asked a particularly ticklish question about sales tax during the 1964 election the then Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas Home said: “A lot of clever chaps are thinking about it at this moment.”

What Sir Alec, who was referring to senior Treasury officials, regarded as a perfectly reassuring answer then, wouldn’t wash  now, of course. Chancellors, for example, are expected to be their own “clever chaps”, answering detailed questions on their budgets from MPs as George Osborne did for more than two hours yesterday.

There was nevertheless a flavour of Sir Alec’s response in the Government’s defence of its new mortgage guarantee scheme. It started when Nick Clegg, pressed by Harriet Harman on whether those buying second homes would benefit, said that was  certainly not the “intention”, adding: “The Treasury is working on the details …… to ensure that  it does exactly what it is intended to do.”

Anyone hoping that this might have been done before the Budget, would hardly have been reassured by the Chancellor’s saying that while the purpose was to help first-time buyers, he didn’t want to penalise borrowers who temporarily needed two mortgages during a divorce. “I want to get this scheme right but the intention of it is absolutely clear.”

Andrew Tyrie, the committee’s Tory chairman, once a Treasury “clever chap” himself, asked Osborne whether “we are just ploughing money back into the boom-bust property cycle”. No, said the Chancellor, he didn’t “detect we are in the middle of the housing boom”. It was an answer, but not actually to the question he had been asked. Tyrie said a little irritably at one point that he didn’t doubt the Chancellor’s good “intentions”. You felt he was biting back the observation that the road to hell is paved with such things. 

Osborne had brought Treasury Permanent Secretary Sir Nicholas Macpherson, who was pressed by the Liberal Democrat John Thurso on RBS’s failure to lend to businesses. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to unload its “dodgy assets” into a “bad bank” and create a separate “good bank” which would lend more willingly?  The answer was, to put it politely, less clear than the question.  So much so that Tyrie more  or less instructed him to look at the idea again.

Macpherson addressed the Lib Dem quaintly as “Viscount Thurso”. True, Thurso was the first hereditary peer to enter the Commons. But he’s normally known as “Mr”. Was it ultra-politeness? Or a sign that even “clever chaps” can get a little flustered?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Supporting role: at the Supreme Court, Rhodes was accompanied by a famous friend, the actor Benedict Cumberbatch
booksPianist James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to stop the injunction of his memoirs
Sport
Sam Allardyce
sport
Sport
Steven Gerrard scores for Liverpool
sport
Arts and Entertainment
Bob Dylan
art
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?