The Sketch: Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee – the Chancellor turns pugilist

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The Independent Online

It was like Henry Cooper or Rocky or Frank Bruno running Mastermind – with the exciting innovation of being allowed to punch the contestant for answers he didn't like. "It was Queen BerenGARIA! Oof! Get up! Gonnora was his SECOND wife! Stop LYING there, get him UP!"

John "Slugger" Mann was quizzing the Chancellor on the statistics of the spending review. He named six countries and demanded loudly: "Which of these six has the lowest budget deficit?" Then having stung the Chancellor with a couple of other what's-the-price-of-a-pint-of-milk jabs, he swung a big one: "In four years' time which will have the lowest budget deficit?"

"Germany," the Chancellor said flatly. There was a pause while Mann wound himself up for another haymaker. "Why?" he asked. "Prudence," the Chancellor replied. The haymaker was already in motion but, oh!, it landed fat in the middle of John Mann's own face and there was this terrible, extending pause as he wandered blindly round the ring bellowing "'Arry!" or "Adrienne!", or whatever prizefighters bellow when the sense has been knocked out of them.

The spectators in the committee winced. The pain they felt was moral, or social – committees are supposed to be a game of chess not a donnybrook. The rest of us loved it, whatever side of the divide we came from.

Your lot would have said: "See, the Chancellor doesn't know how many children – innocent children with faces like flowers – will be turned out of their homes to live in rubbish dumps." And my lot will say: "Blimey, do people really get £20,000 to pay their rent?"

What else? Chuka Umunna went through the Chancellor's salary and benefit allowances to ask whether he, at £140,000-odd, would be as affected by the cuts in child benefit as someone on £33,000 net (as they like to call a salary of £40,000).

Chuka's man-o'-the-people pitch is somewhat at odds with his establishment hauteur and Savile Row tailoring (all right, Jermyn Street dress), but he'd be forgiven a lot if he smiled occasionally.

Chairman Andrew Tyrie gently chastised the Chancellor for using "the language of opposition" in his more colourful images (such as Britain on the edge of bankruptcy), and Osborne took it without flinching (they're used to chastisement at his end of the spectrum).

Osborne, for his part, engaged with the committee in an entirely original way. He cheerfully revealed the date of the 2011 Budget, for instance, and he laughingly described how, once in power, one's opposition ideas about cabinet government become less attractive. David Cameron had been forced to adhere to the proposition by the reality of coalition. "It's my private view which I am now making public." The candour is not just refreshing, it's a relief.

George Osborne has been through some sort of fire and as a result has become (like Ed Balls, oddly enough) more likeable. People like a shocking end to a sketch, and there it is.