Donald Macintyre's Sketch: George Osborne suffers attack of the Bennites in PMQs audition

He’s still intact – even if like all auditions this one ended with a: 'Don’t call us, we’ll call you'

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Indy Politics

Maybe he was just a little nervous before the big moment. After all, he was auditioning to be not the next Prime Minister but three, like Lord Lundy, but the next Prime Minister but none! So a hand strayed towards his necktie before grasping his glass of water instead.

But all was ready – the gags prepared, the briefings read and re-read, the whips deployed to ensure a long list of Tory backbenchers with patsy questions about his brilliant “long-term economic plan”. As he took the first question, standing in for David Cameron, they cheered resoundingly, willing him to eviscerate his enfeebled opponents, represented at PMQs by the shadow Foreign Secretary, and – for this particular gig – the untried Hilary Benn. Surely nothing could go wrong.

Except that Benn failed to play his allotted part of straight man. First, with studied courtesy, he congratulated the Chancellor on becoming “First Secretary” and then asked all six opposition leader’s questions on the gravely, unremittingly serious issues of the Dewsbury 17-year-old who blew himself up, killing 17, the war against Isis and the flow of refugees across the Mediterranean from North Africa. Osborne had only a split second to decide whether to try his first joke anyway. He made the wrong choice.

With equal courtesy, Osborne welcomed Benn to his place, adding warmly that his father (the late Tony Benn) “would have been extremely proud to see him leading for the Labour party today”. And then he added: “On this side of the House we’re extremely relieved to see that there is no Benn in the Labour leadership contest but plenty of Bennites.” Whether, whatever his qualities, Jeremy Corbyn really qualifies as “plenty of” Bennites is doubtful. But that wasn’t the point, which was that this was so at odds with the tone Benn had set that it was bound to fall a bit flat.

Which, to be fair, Osborne was as quick to realise as anyone, becoming equally serious in  turn, thus depriving the backbenchers behind him of their chance to unleash their famous “wall of noise”. Nevertheless he did OK, even if his answers to Benn’s dangerously specific questions were occasionally a little incomplete.

“I noted that the Right Honourable Gentleman was not able to respond to the question I asked about the Turkish authorities,” said Benn, politely. When Osborne still didn’t answer the question – about whether the UK police were being alerted by Turkey about British minors heading for Syria – Benn, either out of kindness or because he forgot, didn’t press the point.

That said, Osborne fielded with some aplomb a series of questions from Labour backbenchers who were equally serious on subjects such as knife crime, rape and domestic violence. He could be forgiven for only saying he would “look specifically” into the day’s most esoteric question, from Labour’s Jim Dowd, on “calculation of public lending rights… being distorted by the increasing number of public libraries being run by volunteers”.

He did let his inner partisan off the leash towards the end, complaining that in 32 minutes no Labour MP raised the issue of (fast multiplying) jobs. But they hardly needed to, since the Tory backbenchers naturally asked about little else.

Sadly, his arch-rival Boris Johnson was – as so often – missing. But he is unlikely to have decided the game was up, any more, of course than Osborne himself, He’s still intact – even if like all auditions this one ended with a: “Don’t  call us, we’ll call you.”