Every year the Chancellor of the Exchequer stands outside No 11 Downing Street, waving his little red briefcase in the air, asking us to guess what’s in it. Today we knew the answer: his sandwiches.
In times past it contained the secrets of the Budget hidden away from the nation, and in Gordon Brown’s time hidden even the Prime Minister – only to be divulged to the masses when the time was right.
But thanks to the coalition, where the messenger is at last more important than the message, there were no secrets left to divulge.
Hugh Dalton was forced to resign as Chancellor when he inadvertently tipped off a journalist about some of the tax changes in the 1947 budget on his way into the House of Commons to deliver his speech. But so many Ministers leaked this one that, had the same rule applied, the Government Front Bench would have been reduced to Ken Clarke; only because he’d been having a nap when the details were handed out.
As it was, the present incumbent George Osborne looked rather relieved as he appeared outside his official front door on his way to tell us nothing we did not know already. Being Chancellor during the worst recession for 80 years meant that he stepped smartly into the car that was to carry him the dangerous 150 yards through the imminent recipients of his largesse into the Commons.
There he had to endure what was more than the usually irrelevant Prime Ministers Questions, as a sort of poor man’s hors d’oeuvres to the main course. Comedy was provided by the Paymaster General, Francis Maude, who found himself on his feet finishing off queries about government business, as Dave, George and the first team slipped in behind him for PMQs.
Mild-mannered Francis – whose job, by the way, has nothing to do with pay, mastery or anything remotedly connected to Generals – found to his horror as he sat down that he was jammed between Dave and his deputy Nick Clegg as battle was abut to commence.
Dave, so often the hapless victim at PMQs, seemed positively relaxed as he realised his tormentor Ed Miliband had to save his best lines to have a go at George and his budget. How right he was.
The Prime Minister took time out to tease Speaker Bercow whose unpopularity in Tory circles, somewhere near to that of Arthur Scargill, was only enhanced by his “kaleidescope” speech to the Queen yesterday. George nervously munched his way through what seemed a pocketful of throat lozenges as his deputy Danny Alexander, whose own sandwiches had hopefully been smuggled in through the same red box, looked as confused as ever about why he was there.
Suddenly PMQs was up and Dave was down. Francis Maude popped up like a cork out of a bottle and fled down the bench and Speaker Bercow, as befits a grand parliamentary occasion, did a runner – leaving the wonderfully named Chairman of Ways and Means to referee the upcoming bout.
George spoke for an hour, gazed at in what appeared to be awe by the PM and trepidation by Nick Clegg, who was obviously fearful something he and Danny had not been told about might be sneaked out.
Normally the budget speech is marked by cheers and jeers as the Chancellor doles out his goodies, but with tax and spending plans already known, the opposing sides didn’t quite know when to exercise their lungs. George was on good enough form to portray a 0.1 per cent increase in the forecast for growth to 0.8 per cent this year as some sort of minor miracle – despite forecasting three times that much just 18 months ago. He was on even better form as he demonstrated that cutting the top rate from 50p to 45p was five times better news for us – and not the rich who would be clobbered anyway by a crackdown on tax dodging.
The thought of the UK’s rich turning away from their televisions in tears seemed a bit strong for Business Secretary Vince Cable, who had managed to turn up late enough to find a place close enough to the exit in case things got out of hand. But George, having promised to lay about the wealthy with a big stick, finally confirmed everything in this morning’s papers, and sat down. The PM smiled, Nick looked relieved, Danny looked for his sandwiches and the Chancellor sat back with a flourish.
Then Ed Miliband stood up and asked how many of the Cabinet’s many millionaires would gain from the 45p tax cut. He invited them to stick their hands up if they were going to benefit personally.
Clearly talking about people’s wealth is bad form in Tory circles, and the Front Bench seemed shocked into silence as Ed displayed his lack of manners by going on about it.
People earning a million would get a £40,000 tax cut, said Ed, and £250,000 more if they picked up £5m. Some of the people at the poor end of the ladder would lose £4,000 a year in benefits.
Ed had been tipped to fall on his face over the Budget following Labour’s own less-than-consistent record on taxes – not to mention its own handling of the economy during the reign of GB, who must have been turning in his grump anyway at the thought of telling the people what the government was planning.
But the new Labour leader had them squirming as he challenged the Government Front Bench to nod if they would be quids in after the budget.
We are no longer all in it together, said Ed, as his own side finally realised he was on a roll and found their voice.
Dave and George looked a bit shell-shocked. This one will run all the way to the General Election.
Originally published in The New Statesman