How many civil servants does it take to put up a tree?

It seemed the simplest of announcements when George Osborne declared he would save £875 of taxpayers' money by cancelling the Treasury Christmas tree. But the cash-conscious Chancellor was reckoning without the Whitehall bureaucracy that surrounds any ministerial pronouncement.

At a lunch for journalists in Westminster, he said he had provoked an extraordinary exchange of emails between mandarins agonising over Christmas tree policy. Mr Osborne had told them: "I am going to go down to a local market and pay for a tree myself, we are going to bring it to No 11 [Downing Street] and it's going to look great."

Then came an email from his Permanent Secretary, Sir Nick Macpherson, telling the Chancellor that the trees were supplied by Exchequer Partnerships (EP), a company responsible for running the Treasury, and civil servants had spoken to the firm about buying a tree for £40 from B&Q.

But the company raised a catalogue of objections: "Who would go and choose the tree from B&Q? How would we get the tree into the building? Who would dispose of the tree after Christmas, and how would we do this? Who would water the tree? Who would provide the stand for the tree? Who would get the decorations? How would we decorate the tree; EP are not obliged to lend us a ladder. Who would turn the lights on and off each evening?"

The firm reminded No 11 that it was not part of its deal with the Treasury to "do any of these things for an off-contract tree". EP also warned that it would have to make health and safety checks on the tree, in particular if civil servants used a ladder to put up decorations. Mr Osborne, flourishing a sheaf of paperwork, said the company finally supplied a tree free, and a civil servant was dispatched to buy decorations, including fairy lights, from Argos for £36. But Sir Nick was considered the only Treasury employee to have the health and safety clearance to attach the star to the top of the 8ft tree. EP would not lend him a ladder, so he had to clamber on an office chair and put up the star himself.

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