The joke was less than brilliant but the news was good. Despite the swingeing £11.5bn of public spending cuts, the Chancellor promised to provide cash to restore the site of the battle of Waterloo in time for the 200th anniversary commemoration of those who died and “to celebrate a great victory of coalition forces over a discredited former regime that had impoverished millions”.
Get it? But never mind the dodgy comparison with the 2010 election. The point is surely that no memorial to the triumph over Napoleon will be complete without at least a plaque to its most famous – albeit fictional – English casualty, who in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair lay dead face down on the battlefield. Eat your heart out Barack Obama – the name of George Osborne will live on forever!
Which is as well, since this was hardly the real-life George’s bid for immortality.
True, he deftly spun as a macho exercise in public expenditure control the deep cuts that were required for dogged adherence to Plan A in the face of a continued slump.
He did this partly by his distinctively Tory choice of where to cut the deepest (welfare and local government) and where to spend (armed services and intelligence) – which should ensure that GCHQ’s awesome powers of surveillance continues to frighten the life out of wishy-washy liberals.
Today Dr Osborne did not say the economy was “healing” but “moving out of intensive care”. Where, then, was the patient now? Waiting on a trolley out in the corridor? Either way, surgery was vital.
“If we abandoned our deficit plan, Britain would be back in intensive care,” a pallid looking Chancellor repeatedly declared, as if he was trying to convince himself.
Otherwise it was a day of bad jokes – on all sides – and frayed tempers. Government hostility to Speaker John Bercow will not have been reduced by his grandiose rebuking of Osborne – and “those at the very highest level”, i.e. David Cameron – for “responding to questions [by] posing a series of questions.”
Osborne may have erred in his description of William Hague as the “best Foreign Secretary in a generation”, because it provoked gleeful Labour demands that he similarly praise other colleagues with more ambition – such as Theresa May and Boris Johnson. Well, he inevitably countered, Ed Balls was “the worst Shadow Chancellor in a generation”.
The George Osborne of Thackeray had “an air at once swaggering and melancholy, languid and fierce”, which is not a bad description of the Chancellor today.