It’s Christmas on the Treasury Select Committee! When Labour’s Pat McFadden, arriving late at today’s session on the Autumn Statement, explained he had been at his son’s nativity play – in which the young McFadden played a shepherd – George Osborne gracefully confessed that he had only ever played a “triangle” at such events.
True, this bonhomie was not sustained, including in the pointed exchanges McFadden himself had later with the Chancellor, in which he tried and failed to persuade Osborne to name the embarrassingly large figure – over £200bn – by which borrowing had exceeded the totals forecast in 2010.
But seasonal references could not be long suppressed. In what fell just short of a hackneyed comparison with Scrooge, Labour’s John Mann asked Osborne, as “the first Chancellor since Neville Chamberlain to see food banks” in British cities: “What is your festive message to those queuing up?” Gamely, Osborne said it was a “hard road” but one that “leads to a better future”.
The Christmas spirit may also have restrained Andrew Tyrie, the Tory committee chairman, who as a Treasury special adviser was Nigel Lawson’s second – rather large – brain when Osborne was barely out of St Paul’s, and who is probably the MP best able to make ministers anxious.
There was a hint of his sternly donnish impatience with obfuscation when, pressing the Chancellor on whether he saw the merits of breaking up the partly state-owned RBS, he said after a long reply: “I couldn’t spot whether that was yes or no. Do you want to have another go?” (The answer, it now turned out, was no).
He was clearly sceptical of the Chancellor’s optimism about the eurozone’s recent step towards a banking union that might ease a crisis which, as Tyrie crisply pointed out, Osborne himself had insisted was the reason growth and deficit figures were so much worse than forecast.
Tyrie also pressed Osborne on whether he agreed with the newly appointed Bank of England Governor that its current 2 per cent inflation target should be modified to promote growth. Mark Carney was a welcome part of a “debate going on” on monetary policy, the Chancellor said. But he had “no plans” at present to change the framework. Largely, however, Tyrie left the interrogation to the other committee members. Which may help explain why Osborne left the session more or less unscathed.