No, George, we haven't reached Nirvana. Your Autumn Statement belongs in Cloud Cuckoo land

The Labour MP on how the Chancellor is making a mess of the economy, the need for Commons reform, hypocrisy over human rights and Esther McVey's disgrace

Chris Bryant
Friday 07 December 2012 20:23
Masks depicting Chancellor George Osborne lie waiting to be used by members of the UNISON union near Parliament
Masks depicting Chancellor George Osborne lie waiting to be used by members of the UNISON union near Parliament

I find it difficult enough to listen to George Osborne at the best of times. Even when we were both first elected in 2001 and he joined a dinner of newbie Labour MPs and was all urbane, debonair, liberal-minded charm, there was a curl of the lip in his tone of voice. Now it sounds like something is being strangled halfway down his oesophagus and his uvula is quietly screaming in sympathy. True, he doesn’t do the ludicrous poses for gravitational effect that Michael Gove indulges in. But to my doubtless partisan ear, the voice still grates.

So I admit that I approached the Autumn Statement with some trepidation. A whole hour of that snarl. I expected quantities of patronising condescension and rebarbative attacks on Labour’s record. But blow me down with David Cameron’s airbrush, for at least the first 10 minutes it was as if we’d all achieved Nirvana. Forget the long-term unemployment figures. Put the double (or is it now triple?) dip recession out of your mind. Leave your troubles behind you. Here everything is wonderful. True, those pesky Europeans have given us a bit of mild economic neuralgia by not pulling their weight. But frankly, it’s all going swimmingly, precisely to plan, tickety boo.

With the blinding light of such crazed optimism in our eyes it took a while to spot the partisan strategy, but then it took shape. Tax a bit more, promise another round of public-service cuts and dare Labour to vote against a 1 per cent freeze on benefits, even though these go primarily to those in work. I suspect such short-term party games will pay few dividends with voters who know that austerity simply isn’t working, and anyone who thinks it is has achieved a state of delusion, not Nirvana.

Commons needs urgent reform

One of the many myths about the Commons is that it drafts our laws. Nothing could be further from the truth. It might have been true a couple of hundred years ago, when any old MP could get a statute debated and into law. But in 1811, the government seized Mondays and Fridays for its own business; in 1835 it added Wednesdays, and by the 20th century, only government or government-supported private bills could make their way through the labyrinth. So, to all intents and purposes, it is government that now legislates in this country, and other MPs merely prod and tickle ministers on their way.

It’s all very different in the US, where Congress has just approved legislation to ban those Russians involved in the murder of Sergei Magnitsky and the corruption he exposed from entering America. There is a similar appetite for a Magnitsky Act among MPs in the UK – and even more of a rationale for it as Magnitsky was working for a British company, and many wealthy Russian officials delight in visiting London for shopping, for football, for banking, for the education of their children and for suing one another. We even have a unanimous resolution of the House on the matter. But however much William Hague and Theresa May nudge-nudge and wink-wink that such people will not be granted visas, they refuse to legislate.

It’s the same with Leveson. Monday’s debate – in which Maria Miller like a loyal but slightly inadequate Labrador, displayed a phenomenal capacity to get the wrong end of the stick – showed that there is a majority in the Commons for precisely the legislation that Leveson deemed “essential” and even David Cameron refuses to denounce as “bonkers”. Astute contributions by three knighted former Tory ministers – Malcolm Rifkind, Edward Garnier and Gerald Howarth – made it clear that the Commons wants a new law.

If necessary, we shall publish both Bills and ensure that the House makes its view clear. But unless we reform the Commons, we shall always have to rely on the Government to make it happen.

Who are we to talk of human rights?

Bizarrely, we did have one Tory attempt at law-making this week with Richard Bacon’s 10-minute rule effort on Tuesday to repeal the Human Rights Act. It came to naught as the House voted it down by 195 to 72. One supporter of the Bill privately pointed out to me that the Tory front bench was not allowed to vote. Since Bacon called for the UK to resile from the European Convention on Human Rights and thereby leave both the EU and the Council of Europe, it seems that a growing band of Tories are building up to Britain abandoning international human rights conventions while trying to persuade Russia to abide by them.

A cowardly act to be ashamed of

Just occasionally I get very, very angry. Thursday was one such day. The Government tried to sneak out an announcement on the closure of another tranche of Remploy factories (including the E-cycle factory in the Rhondda) via a written ministerial statement innocuously entitled “Disability Employment”. So determined were they that nobody would create a stir about this that they made sure the statement was not available to MPs until well after the last moment for demanding a debate – and they even started letting MPs with Remploy factories that are marked for closure in their constituencies know about a briefing meeting to be held at 11.30 – at 11.30.

When I first got involved in politics 22 years ago, a hardened older councillor warned me (in the time of Thatcher’s cuts) that you were no use as a politician until you had been “blooded” by closing a library or a school. His cynicism was hardly attractive, but nobody respects a coward in politics and voters today will be forgiven for feeling equally cynical about ministers hiding from the public.

People were rightly furious when businesses sacked their staff by text message a few years ago, but the Government was effectively doing the same to some very vulnerable people who have worked loyally for years at Remploy. I’ve been nice about Esther McVey, who is the minister for disability, in this column previously but she should be ashamed of what she did on Thursday.

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