Donald Macintyre's Sketch: The curious case of the yellow budget box


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Indy Politics

It was always going to be tricky explaining to curious passers-by what we were waiting for.

“It’s Danny Alexander’s budget.” “But the Budget was on Wednesday.” “Yes, but he doesn’t agree with it so he’s having one of his own.” “But I thought he was the Chancellor’s deputy.” “Well, he is.” ”So why doesn’t he resign?” “Well he says he only disagrees on what happens after the election, not up to now.” “What that’s got to do with... Oooh, there he is, with a yellow box.” “Yes, that’s to show it’s different from the one in the red box.” “Is this a good wheeze?” “Possibly not. That could be why he’s looking a bit sheepish holding it, like it wasn’t his idea in the first place, even if it was.”

Alexander had come from the Commons, where things had not gone smoothly. Speaker John Bercow had declared sternly that using a ministerial statement ”for purely party purposes… would put the Chair in a very difficult position. I know that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury will bear that in mind.” Alexander didn’t much (bear it in mind).

Sighing visibly, the Speaker then allowed noisy Labour MPs – “this is ridiculous” and “abuse of power” – off their leash for much of the speech.

True, the Speaker did twice rebuke Labour frontbencher Andrew Gwynne – the first for actually thrusting the dreaded red book under Alexander’s nose.

But then Alexander, explaining that the Chancellor would take government spending power back to 1964, added: “The era of Cathy Come Home is not my vision for the future of Britain.” Labour MPs were incandescent at this reference to Ken Loach’s pioneering (1966) housing documentary, not because they disagreed with it but because they didn’t. As in “that’s our line. Or should be!”.

Undaunted, if mysteriously, Alexander said this might actually appeal to some Tories because it was “before Nigel  Farage was born”. (It wasn’t, actually, just before Danny was.)

Alexander said this “constitutional innovation” had been “collectively agreed by the Government as an alternative fiscal scenario”.

“What a farce,” the shadow Chief Secretary Chris Leslie declared. Had Alexander not signed off on the Budget, not to mention been a big help in writing it? “I know it is usual to have several days of Budget debates but not several budgets.”

At this point, Nick Clegg got up and left with a cheery wave, to equally cheery “byeees”.

So this is how the Coalition ends: not with a bang but a “constitutional innovation”.