The prospect of an election 14 months away is having an acetone-like effect on the Coalition, gradually loosening the superglue that binds the two governing parties together. True, Lib Dem Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander, standing in for George Osborne, continued to respond warmly, if robotically, to Tory backbenchers lost in admiration for what ministers call, ad nauseam, “our long term economic plan”.
And he ritually accused Ed Balls of “spending a bank bonus tax 10 times over” to fund Labour’s plans. But as he knew, this was, as Balls carefully put it, “out of date”. After all, the shadow Chancellor was pressing him to agree that each party’s electoral plans, presumably including Balls’ own plan to raise £6bn with taxes on the rich, should be audited by the Office of Budget Responsibility.
Alexander then said this was “well worth further consideration”. OK, he said he “worried” that OBR would not be equipped for the job before the next election, which is the ministerial equivalent of St Augustine’s “Make me chaste, but not yet”. But it was very different from his Tory Treasury colleague David Gauke’s earlier dismissal of the idea.
Meanwhile, in a sinister development, Plaid Cymru’s Jonathan Edwardes spoke in Welsh. Well, only one word; but that is often how these things start. Called to put his question to the Treasury team, he said “Diolch [Thanks] Mr Speaker.” Does any regulation stop him taking this further? Can Hansard cope if he decides to make all his speeches in his mother tongue?
Edwardes wanted the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee to include representatives of the “devolved nations” and the “whole sterling zone,” including the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. Slapping the suggestion down because “monetary policy is not a devolved responsibility,” Tory Treasury minister Sajid Javid even had the backing of Balls, who had been shaking his head as Edwardes spoke.
Then it all fell apart. Asked by Labour’s Cathy Jamieson why Osborne had not appointed a single woman to the MPC, Javid began: “Appointments to the MPC should always be made on merit…” Cue shouts of anti-sexist indignation from Balls and shadow Chief Secretary Chris Leslie – Ed Balls’ Ed Balls – at the fanciful notion that no woman was good enough for the job. Javid was reduced to pointing out that four women had served on the committee – all of them Labour-appointed.
Earlier, Treasury Select Committee chairman Andrew Tyrie was disturbed to discover, while interrogating Bank officials, that recordings of MPC deliberations are routinely destroyed once the minutes are written. He pointed out that the Federal Reserve publishes the transcripts after a five year interval and urged Governor Mark Carney to review the Bank’s practice, given the recordings’ “historic importance”.
Not quite the Met shredding records of their corruption investigations, perhaps. But still rather shocking. And very, very British.