The Sketch: Young MP's victory was bittersweet … a bit like the Budget really
Wednesday 20 March 2013
Motoring beer drinkers trying to buy their own home are not the only ones to have some consolation from the Budget. Bitter-sweet parliamentary moments don't come much better than this one did for Tristram Hunt.
Imagine you're a young, newish, Labour MP, a professional historian castigated as a "luvvie" by Eric Pickles for denouncing cuts in public libraries. And lo and behold, a Tory Chancellor not only hands you a stunning victory for your campaign to exempt industry in your constituency from the climate change levy but gracefully name-checks you as he does so.
"The Honourable Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central has argued passionately and in a non-partisan way about the damage energy costs are doing to his city's famous ceramics industry – and he's persuaded me." For this, it was worth surviving the laughter from the Tory benches, no doubt prompted by Hunt's earlier warning that the Budget would be "shambolic and reactionary".
It was the most stylish moment of Osborne's speech, one whose several cunning wheezes, as Denis Healey, another Chancellor grappling with seriously bad economic times, used to call them, could not quite disguise the grimness of the economic forecasts he was obliged to revise downwards yet again.
Having delivered it, Osborne looked around smiling – as well he might given the enthusiastic waving from the Tory bench. Perhaps out of nervousness, his voice showed signs of hoarseness from all too early in the speech.
It was sprinkled with those tell-tale phrases of a Chancellor with his back against the wall: "I will be straight with the country." Growth was "less than we would like". "I know it's tough [a word which he used at least half a dozen times] but it's fair."
There were flourishes, of course. Announcing his £3.5bn shared equity loan scheme he spoke of wanting to own your house as "the most human of aspirations". But given that much of Western Europe and North America manages to rub along with rented accommodation, this seemed a little exaggerated. What about eating, getting a job, sex, watching Match of the Day?
It used to be said that the hardest job in politics was the Opposition Leader's response to a Budget speech. Ed Miliband made it seem easy. Which of course it was, in that these days he doesn't have to actually mention anything from the speech. Grandly bypassing the crunchy details – like, say, the change to the Bank of England's inflation remit – he nevertheless made the most of his opportunity for some effective, if crude, knockabout.
As in: "OK, hands up if you're not getting the 50p tax cut," directed at the Government front bench. So noisy were his own backbenchers that at one point the Deputy Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, said: "I cannot understand an Opposition who do not want to hear their own leader."
What had excited them was the copy of the front page of the Evening Standard which had been accidentally cyber-distributed before Osborne's speech rather than after it, as intended. Miliband called for an investigation of the premature publication which had included "the market-sensitive fiscal forecasts".
How times have changed though. When 56 years ago another London evening paper, the old Star, published details before poor Hugh Dalton had finished his budget speech it was the Chancellor – not the paper – which apologised. And indeed swiftly resigned.
That, of course, was never going to happen, any more than a sudden decision to surrender to a Plan B. Twice Osborne revived the less than ringing phrase from Cameron' party conference speech last year: "Aspiration Nation." Well yes, Chancellor, we are all aspiring like mad. To get out of this mess.
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