Chancellor's Budget ding-dongs: George Osborne lays down the law

The way he is adjusting to his new, free, life is by being pretty tough with government departments

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The Independent Online

George Osborne’s Budget speech in March was all about sunlit uplands. Now his party has won the election for which he wrote that economic statement, the Chancellor can talk about the rather less cheery reality, such as £3bn-worth of spending cuts for unprotected departments, which he announced this week.

Osborne has a bit more time on his hands now that he doesn’t have to deal with the “Quad”, the group of four senior ministers who would sign everything off in the Coalition. When Greg Hands was appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury to replace Danny Alexander, he jokingly asked the Prime Minister when his first Quad meeting was. David Cameron racked his brains for a minute before realising that there was no Quad.

The way Osborne and Hands are adjusting to their new, free, life is by being pretty tough with departments. At Cabinet this week, Hands, who is a long-standing ally of the Chancellor, made his first intervention on a presentation by another minister, which was to remind Jeremy Hunt of the great importance of NHS efficiencies.

There has also been a cross-departmental ding-dong going on between the Treasury and Iain Duncan Smith’s Work and Pensions department over the cuts Duncan Smith wants to make, and the ones Osborne would prefer. The former doesn’t want what he calls “cheese-paring” of benefit spending. The latter needs to cut £12bn, and is being pretty stern about it, rather like a teacher laying down the law with new pupils.

But at some point, Osborne will need to start befriending those pupils, too, if he ever wants a chance of being party leader.

One ghost is plenty

Ed Miliband has come back to school rather quickly. Tories who previously heckled the Labour leader were rather struck by what one described as his “class, grace and courage” in giving a speech in the Commons so soon after having to resign. Not so some Labour colleagues, who wish Miliband would spend some time in quiet contemplation about what he got wrong.

One Labour adviser describes him as being like “Banquo’s ghost”, and moaned that though “inequality is always going to be a really important thing for Labour, there’s more to it, and he is offering the same argument that failed in the election”.

Miliband is clearly keen to do more than just languish on the back benches producing pamphlets for think tanks that his colleagues pretend to read. Meanwhile, his brother, David, is returning to London this autumn to give a keynote speech to the Institute of Directors. It seems whoever is elected Labour leader will have to deal with not one, but two Milibands haunting the party.

If the party decides it does want to move on and offer voters something completely different, having two ghosts of Labour’s past hanging around will make that new offer rather less credible.

It’s a foreign affair...

Of all the maiden speeches that new MPs and peers have given in Parliament in the past couple of weeks, the best testimony came from Arminka Helic, former special adviser to William Hague, about coming to Britain as a Bosnian refugee in 1992. Helic is now in the Lords, and spoke on 28 May. It is worth reading it in full in Hansard.

But while her story, which she said was “about the United Kingdom … and why it is still such a great country”, is so stirring and cheering, other Tories worry that their party doesn’t worry enough about refugees in this country. Shrewsbury and Atcham MP Daniel Kawczynski is setting up a Tory group on the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees to rectify that.

Kawczynski happens to be standing for the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and so taking on a traditionally “left-wing” subject will hardly harm his chances among the Labour and Lib Dem MPs he needs to woo.

But his plans also show an admirable attempt to stop asylum seekers and refugees becoming an exclusive concern of the left. As the Conservatives learned in the last parliament when they tried to ignore food banks as what George Osborne called a “niche issue”, problems don’t go away just because you ignore them. Instead, they just become issues that your opponents own and set the narrative on.

If a problem exists, a political party should make sure it can show that its worldview is robust enough to accommodate it, rather than hope it will fade away like Tinker Bell.

Talk to the ether, trolls

I took a few days away from Twitter this week after a barrage of green ink tweets made me a tad misanthropic. It seemed a good idea to take a break before I started to believe everyone replying to me was a furious and irrational ranter.

MPs who see their replies feed swelling daily with people telling them they are vile or “smug cows” say they have to do the same too, from time to time, so they don’t become so thick-skinned they are unable to empathise or respond to perfectly valid criticism.

I was expecting to bob along blissfully with no furious correspondents, no finger hovering sadly over the “block” button. But, really, I just ended up missing the wonderful stream of ideas, debate, and beautiful British wit that seems to work so well on Twitter. From the legal expert adding some detail on a piece I’d written on human rights reform, to the pictures of an upended wheelie bin with the caption “never forget: we will rebuild” after the Kent earthquake, Twitter is, by and large, a wonderful thing.

From now on, I’ll mute anyone who seasons their 140 characters with bile, leaving them ranting pointlessly into the ether while the rest of the network continues to delight. It’s too good to leave to trolls.

Jane Merrick is away

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