The Sketch: What was that, Darling? How the Commons lost the Chancellor's plot

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The Independent Online

They sat there almost completely silent, like priests, or judges, or higher invigilators. The Labour benches didn't understand a word of what was going on. The guarantee, the meta-guarantee, the prudential rules. The Chancellor had no difficulty obfuscating a situation so thoroughly obfuscated before he started. To be fair to him, he sounded calm, reliable and not uninterested in what he was saying.

But it was a relief for everyone, I think, when the shadow Chancellor piled in with an ad hominem attack on the Prime Minister and his private briefings and the "marginal" Chancellor. Osbo was brisk, brutal and almost completely intelligible. He's improved over the past year. People take him more seriously. It's because he doesn't suck so heavily on the helium bottle before getting up to speak. He said that the Chancellor's Plan A had become the Government's Plan B. Yes, he meant it to sting. The plan was a "second mortgage" for every family in Britain. After all this dithering, there was nothing there that couldn't have been announced in September. He was accused of flip-flopping.

Vince Cable tangoed his way through the argument. He praised the advisers, particularly "the Danish economist Hans Christian Andersen" who was providing a suit of gold to cover the Prime Minister's embarrassment. It was a private solution without private money. It was the nationalisation of losses and the privatisation of profits. His piece was delivered with such mournful sprightliness he carried us round the room.

Ken Clarke told us it had always been blindingly obvious no private sector solution was possible. Five months into it, this announced solution was going to benefit shareholders and future investors with the Government funding an open-ended guarantee on risk indefinitely. Dithering: that was the problem.

What I don't understand is: why doesn't Darling punish the speculative shareholders? No one likes them. They're so fat they couldn't squeeze through a cat flap. And they made a duff investment. As for the smaller shareholders, they have failed to control their company. Isn't this the penalty?

The Tories must take comfort from the fact that the Government hasn't sorted this out. They must be praying it goes wrong. I can't think it won't. A pain-free solution will be like a warm winter failing to wipe out a generation of germs. PS: Michael Meacher's slip of the tongue seemed to say "Gordon Rock". It may yet be so.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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