Those who complain about the size of the BBC license fee were given more damning evidence of cash-squandering today, when the Beeb’s Autumn Statement coverage involved the hiring of a helicopter. I’m all for the Helicopter View, but five seconds of George Osborne crossing an inner Palace of Westminster quadrangle didn’t really make for what you’d call added value. However, it was at least real – which is more than one could say for the rest of the Commons exchanges.
It says a lot about the state of Britain (and Channel Four’s sense of humour) that C4’s chosen weapon to drag people away from this spectacle was the archaic David Niven epic A matter of Life and Death. It is a classic movie – indeed, my Dutch chum Leo Jacobs’ favourite film of all time – but for me the sight of Bomber Command’s plucky resistance to the Nazis would’ve been too much irony on such an inauspicious day. So I stayed with Andrew Neill and friends to watch events unfolding.
Talking of the War, there was a famous comic monologue at its outset by the inimitable Robb Wilton, called The Day War Broke Out. It starts like this:
The day war broke out, my missus looked at me and she said, “What good are you?”
I said, “How d’y’ mean, what good am I?”
“Well,” she said, “you’re too old for the army, you couldn’t get into the navy and they wouldn’t have you in the Air Force, so what good are you?”
I am reminded of the routine every time I see Robert Peston on the telly. In the whole five years I’ve been listening to his words, he has but once surprised me – when he up and splashed the news about Cable saying he would “get Murdoch”. This turned out to be a tip he was given on a plate by another hack he lives close to in Muswell Hill.
As Osborne’s reality rearrangement got going today, Bobby tweeted away a few minutes behind the music, basically telling us what the Draper had already said. In fact, exactly what the Draper had said. We call Peston ‘John Lewis’ in our house, because he was Never Knowingly Underrated.
It would, in turn, be hard to underrate the folks writing the script for UK politics at the moment. Like Eastenders, Westminsters is so predictable – and the characters so two-dimensional – it is truly tedious to watch….a fact that seems to remain unknown to all the players, with the exception of Speaker Bercow. Little John interrupts at regular intervals to say things like “will be heard”, “not what the public expects of this house” and so forth; but what this odious man should be saying is “I John Bercow am going to interrupt now, in order to grab some TV coverage, and distract attention from the worrying height and insane publicity-obsession of my wife”.
The Tories proclaim, and Labour shakes its collective head – or in Ed Miliband’s case, his nose. The Labour Shadow stands up to put the other viewpoint, and the Tories laugh. Or in Theresa May’s case, smile. Mrs May’s smile too is predictable, the sort of smile one reserves for despicable but rich clients. There is something about Theresa that makes me wonder if she might one day get up and machine gun the entire Front Bench. The jury’s out on which one she might choose.
Osborne’s speech had been billed as The Statement George never Wanted to Make, but within three minutes it became The Drone Nobody wanted to Hear. The folks behind him didn’t want to be reminded that Plan A wasn’t working, the rows opposite didn’t want to have it convincingly explained that they were around 30-45% to blame for leaving only Plan A to work with, and the rest of us were bored as soon as the Chancellor said the dread word ‘unexpected’. He said it five times in those first three minutes. It’s not a record, but the needle is very badly stuck on it. Readers under 35, see Wikipedia under ‘Gramophone Records’. (US readers should opt for the ‘Phonograph’ alternative.)
On the whole, Unexpected right now is not good. “We’ve got this mother well and truly taped” would be better. Instead, George Osborne gave us specious nonsense about our low cost of borrowing, and how no new money would be required to stay on track. This was pure Gordon Brown, as within seconds the Chancellor said the deficit would be up by £112bn come 2015. Even more Gordonesque was, “The OBR has established that youth unemployment is down to lack of jobs”. It was a rare chance for the benches opposite to roar with laughter, but it does make one wonder if Osborne’s proof-reader might be the love-child of Mr Magoo and Jo Brand.
The only reason the UK is still afloat, it seems to me, is that we’re not actually attached to the Continent as such, and can thus pretend we’re a little bit of nothing terribly significant perched innocently on the Continental Shelf. A cormorant, perhaps, or a stray seal. You do get the feeling Osborne hopes that, if he stays away from all the EU summits – or says as little as possible – the markets will forget all about us. Not a chance, chummy: our turn will come. More than anything else, this certainty is what makes Autumn statements beyond academic.
There were more initiatives to sweeten the cyanide pill – all of which were needed because our banks aren’t fulfilling their accepted economic role – after which George moved on to the renewal of the A380 outside Bristol, and the idea of another lane on the A14 in Suffolk. Just when I thought he might make reference to Mr & Mrs Nerd’s new kitchen extension in Chesterfield, Osborne sat down. It was time for the Morley Mauler to reply.
Ed Balls told us we had to be clear. The Government strategy was in tatters. It just wasn’t working. It was in disarray. The Man opposite was out of touch. He didn’t get it. We weren’t all in this together at all. The only departure from wooden cliche was when Ed said that Plan A was “flailing”, and the Chancellor would now have to “borrow more borrowing”. These pronouncements held my attention by making me laugh, an outcome that struck me as entirely inappropriate given the disaster under discussion.
I’d like to feel sorry for Edward Balls MP, but I don’t. I don’t feel sorry for any of these third-rate extras in history, but I feel particularly unsorry for Mr Balls. It might be because he manages to make Robert Peston seem creative, it might be because his top lip sweats like Hitler’s did, and it might conceivably be because – when you strip away the polemic drivel – he has absolutely no alternative policy of any credibility either here or abroad with which to bash the Draper. But I suspect it’s mainly because, were he ever to take the ultimate reins of power, Britain would be a bankrupt concentration camp within five years. When it comes to lack of respect for freedom of speech, Ed Balls is every bit as much a threat as Boris Johnson and Harriet Harman.
Hattie was seated to Ed’s left during the debate, and I wonder if I was the only one who noticed that she talked to herself non-stop throughout the proceedings. This may be partly due to the fact that she’s something of a Billie No-Mates these days; but perhaps there is also a hint in there of the descent into madness. If you can bear to watch the BBC IPlayer rerun, I suggest you focus on the omnidirectional nature of her comments. She looks for all the world like the sort of tertiary unfortunate that Thatcher’s lot used to consign to Care in the Community. It is relatively easy for the privileged elite to remain this side of the asylum walls: Stalin achieved it by killing the psychiatrists, Gadaffi by levelling the asylums. I’m agog with anticipation as to how Harriet Harman will manage the process if and when her time comes.
So there it was: an Autumnal Statement, followed by a Wintry response. Yet they are – all of these featherweights – nothing but dead leaves being blown about by the random breezes of global economics, and the rapacious wheezes of investment banking. Soon to come is the nuclear hurricane of EU fallout. It will flatten everything here, sweeping a great deal of the UK’s political structures in directions as yet unknown. Five years from now, we may well look back on today’s tableau, and weep with nostalgia.