23 Mar 2011

George Osborne’s Big Day

It’s the business end of the political season for Chancellor George Osborne and his delivery of the Budget had echoes of Britain’s top football manager, says Peter McHugh.

George Osborne in Downing Street (Getty)

It was that famed Scottish economist Sir Alex Ferguson who came up with the phrase which best described the lot of the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday as “squeaky bum time”.

Sir Alex, banned from the touchline in his other job as Manchester United manager for being rude to officials was also absent from the House of Commons as Chancellor George Osborne produced his latest Budget but plenty of hooligans turned up.

Peace had broken out in the House of Commons 48 hours earlier when statesmanship made a rare appearance during the debate on Libya, but it took only minutes for normal service to be resumed yesterday as MPs turned from matters abroad to those at home.

This was George’s second Budget and observers were keen to see if he could match the blood curdling messages of the recent past which had endeared him to so many of the electorate.

His day began with the traditional waving of the red box on the steps of Number 11 Downing Street, his official residence but not where he lives. In times past, Chancellor made the short walk from there to the Commons but so popular is George that he went by car.

Celebrity PMQs

With the Budget speech in mind he had booked his best friend Dave to do the warm up via a celebrity edition of Prime Minister’s Questions.

Mindful of serious matters elsewhere Dave and his opposite number, Ed Miliband, spent a couple of minutes being pleasant to each other about Libya but that lasted only until the first Tory MP managed to get to his feet, point at the opposition and hurl insults across the chamber.

At this outbreak of hostilities members relaxed, sat back in their seats and looked forward to the main event.

Dave did his bit to get his side in good voice for the shouting contest to come and Ed too did his own bit of rabble rousing to put Labour in the mood.
On the Government benches, George looked surprisingly squeaky,fidgeting in his seat and fiddling with his papers.

Suddenly Dave was down and he was up. Having called him, Speaker John Bercow appeared to flee the chamber, leaving some wondering if he knew what was to come, before experts pointed out that it was tradition for his deputy to do it.

Within seconds it was obvious that George had not been fidgeting because he was nervous about the opposition but because he wanted to be at them. And at them he was from the off. This would be a Budget for making things, not making things up, he said to the delight of his own side, more than aware that his previous pronouncements had done little for their popularity back home.

It’s the tradition of Budget speeches to lace your comments with announcements of changes that win the oohs and aahs of your own side and the discomfort of the opposition.

Dave, already privy to the speech, was clearly out to enjoy himself as was George’s deputy – Lib Dem Danny Alexander – who has increasingly shown all the zeal of a convert to the cause.

Less publicly-enamoured was Danny’s official leader, Nick Clegg – Deputy Prime Minister, despite being obviously less so in the presence of Dave’s real best friend George. It’s the tradition of Budget speeches to lace your comments with announcements of changes that win the oohs and aahs of your own side and the discomfort of the opposition.

The Chancellor had more than a slight problem with this since he and his mates had been leaking the Budget’s contents on an industrial scale over the past few days. We knew there would be help for first time buyers, Enterprise Zones and even a plan to merge income tax and national insurance. We even knew that the rich would face a Learjet levy though we didn’t think it would be enough for them to swap to Ryanair.

The excitement seemed to prove too much for the Secretary of State for Justice, Ken Clarke, who sat slumped further down the Government front bench. Ken has been in the Commons for a long time and even had a go himself at being Chancellor and this may have been why he appeared to rest his eyes for quite a while during George’s speech.

Ken would also have had advance warning of the headline that George was to drop to guarantee him not just front page coverage but also applause from a population who think they have been mugged in recent months and have yet to feel the real effects of George in his previous incarnation as Vlad the Impaler.

As the past masters in leaking, the Labour benches could only wait for the populist sickener they knew was to come and if they had any doubt Danny kept leaning across and mouthing “wait for it”.

Glass half-full?

Another quaint habit of the House of Commons is that the only MP allowed an alcoholic drink in the chamber is the Chancellor during the Budget speech. Danny kept filling his glass.

It was almost the full hour before George dropped his plan to tax the oil companies and swap a planned rise in prices of 5p a litre for an immediate reduction of 1p from 6 o’clock.

In an instant, rising unemployment ,inflation and borrowing seemed to have been forgotten as celebrations broke out over the first bit of good news since George first mounted the Treasury steps.

If Parliamentary procedure allowed the brandishing of fingers then you can imagine how Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition felt at this moment.

All Ed Miliband could do was make the speech he had written no matter what George was to say. Growth was down, unemployment was up, he shouted to a largely-indifferent Government side. “It’s hurting but it isn’t working.” he said, as MPs swapped insults and ignored appeals to let him be heard.

George just smiled. He’d had a good one and he knew it.

Peter McHugh is the former director of programmes at GMTV and was last year awarded the Royal Television Society Lifetime Achievement Award.