Sorry, George Osborne, but we can’t go on suspending our disbelief for much longer

Plus: Expensive memories of war; Old jokes aren't the best Boris; A surgeon's dilemma and the dangers of shadow dancing
  • @ChrisBryantMP

All I could think of as George Osborne (his face caked in so much slap he could have stepped on to a Kabuki stage) delivered his Comprehensive Spending Review was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who reckoned that his task was to include in his supernatural poems “a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith”.

Why? Because there is a “semblance of truth” in what George says. We need to cut our cloth according to our means. There will be no pot of gold under the staircase in the Treasury come May 2015. Savings are necessary.

The trouble is that the UK has suspended its disbelief long enough. Just remember what David Cameron said. He and George would balance the books by 2015. They had us believe that their first CSR was the route to economic prosperity. Two years ago, Osborne pronounced, “We have already asked the British people for what is needed”, and boasted he would not need to ask for more. They condemned Labour’s spending, even though they were busily tying the Tory party to Labour spending plans right up until the world economic crisis broke in late 2008. They said they would cut the deficit, not the NHS – and they’d borrow less every year.

But look at the facts. The deficit in 2011/12 was £118.5bn; this past year it was £118.7bn. In case you missed it, that’s an increase of £227m. They’re borrowing more, not less – and borrowing to pay for economic failure, not investment. It’s true the NHS will get a smidgen more cash, but only because the care budget is being raided, and as for the deficit, George now says it matters only as a percentage of GDP. Virtually every penny that was “announced” this week was making a repeat appearance, and as for growth, it was strangled by the £5.6bn cuts in capital expenditure in 2010 and is now no better than elusive and uncertain.

There’s been a concerted attempt to rehabilitate Osborne this week, but his economic tales are about as credible as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. New Labour was accused of spin; Osborne’s modus operandi is the suspension of disbelief. It’s time we abandoned this poetic faith.

Expensive memories of war

The cenotaph has been draped of late in a vast sheath carrying the words “getting ready to remember”. All very odd. After all, if you’re getting ready to remember, you’ve already remembered. But the Government’s attitude to history worries me. Osborne announced cash to upgrade the battlefield museum (in Belgium) at Waterloo, which was apparently “a great victory for coalition forces over a discredited former regime that impoverished millions”. Never has so much money been spent abroad to deliver such a feeble joke. But this is just the start. Apparently Agincourt (France) is to be restored and I’m guessing Blenheim (Germany), Quebec (Canada), Lexington (US), Balaclava (Ukraine) and Rorke’s Drift (South Africa) will follow. On Armed Forces Day it seems odd to sack 4,500 troops while spending money celebrating our imperialist military victories overseas.

Old jokes aren’t the best, Boris

Last year’s London Gay Pride march was a disaster, as financial woes meant that right up to the last moment it was uncertain whether it could go ahead. This year, thanks to a dedicated team under Michael Salter, Pride will go ahead on a secure financial footing today. As part of the fundraising there was a gala dinner at Claridge’s on Tuesday, at which the Mayor was to be the special guest. Boris Johnson was truly appalling, wittering on for so long about the Olympics (and his role) that we began to worry that nobody had told him this was the Gay Pride dinner. He devoted all of three sentences to the matter, the first of which was: “I’m delighted that as of this autumn any young man will be able to take his chum up the Arcelor [pause for effect] Orbit and marry him.” It was the kind of gag that would be fine from Julian Clary, but one table of guests stormed out and harangued the Mayor as he left. Admittedly, a few howled with laughter, but I suspect they had never been on a Pride march in their life.

A surgeon’s dilemma

Three short stories overheard this week. Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, below, has a Scottish burr which she has never played down in court. Apparently one judge told her: “Whenever you say the word murder it sounds as if there’s more than one body.”

A new female minister in Denmark was asked a question by a British journalist on her first day in office to which she did not know the answer. Her answer caused some consternation. “I’m sorry, I can’t answer your question as I am just starting my period.” Cue much chauvinist jollity. What she meant to say was “I have only just started my period in office”.

A surgeon was trying to explain to his three young children the dilemma facing a friend of his when he was asked to operate on General Pinochet a few years ago. What would they do if they were asked to operate on a notorious dictator who had killed many thousands? The eldest said: “I wouldn’t take the call.” The next said: “I’d suggest another surgeon.” The youngest, most chillingly said: “I’d do the operation, but the scalpel might slip.”

The dangers of shadow dancing

Mark Harper has been stalking me. First I was his shadow as constitutional minister; then I moved to the immigration brief and he followed. Two years ago I broke my leg, and now he’s done the same. The only difference? My break happened playing rugby at Twickenham, and his when he fell off the table he was dancing on in Soho. Somehow it feels like a role reversal.