Oh, how they laughed. Explaining George Osborne’s absence from Treasury Questions, Chief Secretary Danny Alexander was on side-splitting form. “My right honourable friend the Chancellor is in Brussels today at the Ecofin council,” he told MPs, “exercising the considerable influence that Britain enjoys as a full member of the European Union.” Boom, boom!
Only with the coalition in its current euroshambles, could this have been so hilarious. The mere idea that Britain enjoys such influence is a joke in itself for diehard Eurosceptic MPs. For others there was the delight of seeing the Cabinet’s divisions laid bare by a Lib Dem minister who used to run the European Movement. Or the Hell Fire Club as those same backbenchers would see it.
The normally super-loyal Alexander revelled in his pro-Europeanism. When Heidi Alexander (no relation, but she might as well have been, given that it was such a patsy question in the context) asked him how the latest Prime Ministerial wheeze of a draft referendum bill “will 1) create jobs 2) attract investment and 3) secure Britain’s future in the global economy?” his reply was crispy in the extreme. “I don’t think it would achieve any of those objectives and that’s why I don’t support it.”
Ed Balls later reminded Alexander that the IMF were “in town” – the phrase conjures a posse of gun-slinging marshals led by Sheriff Christine Lagarde in a Stetson – and asked why the Treasury was planning to ignore their verdict and press ahead with its “failing plan”.
Alexander recalled that an anonymous Shadow Cabinet member had been quoted in The Sun saying: “Balls is a busted flush when it comes to economic competence because of his legacy with Gordon.”
Before this unedifying mud wrestle, Tory ultra-grandee Sir Peter Tapsell, also with Europe on his mind, had sought to lift the tone by asking how the G7 finance ministers had been “remarkably cheerful” at their weekend meeting in Aylesbury while “the Archbishop of Toledo was warning that their fiscal policies were threatening to cause social breakdown and the overthrow of democracy in Spain and much of southern Europe?” He did not mention that Osborne had been so cheerful that he had slipped out of the meeting to help the members of the local Women’s Institute make the tea.
But then it was probably only a ruse to get away from the baleful presence at Aylesbury of Ms Lagarde.
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