That Was the Week….

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Wednesday 8th July was supposed to be a big day. It was the day that roughly for the last two months – that is ever since David Cameron walked back into Downing Street with a 12-seat majority – we were being primed to expect The First Purely Conservative Budget for 19 Years. Professional doom-mongers in the media and elsewhere had been deployed for weeks to make us suitably trepidatious about this event. It was, we were told, going to be something roughly akin to the coming of winter in Game of Thrones: sheets of ice would lay across the country, birdsong would cease and twisted, violent hobgoblins from beyond the Wall would rise up and take away our tax credits. That this, through the implications of democracy, was an outcome that had been willed by the people in a free and fair election was dropped from this commentary in the interests of narrative versimilitude.

As it happened, the first purely Conservative Budget for 19 years turned out to look a lot like the first purely Labour Budget for five, although it did not become fashionable to express this opinion until the weekend political programmes. The Treasury may have a patchy record on fiscal control, but it can generally be relied upon to prevent the penny from dropping until the Chancellor has long since departed to put on a hard-hat somewhere, and the first day’s admiring headlines have been written. Mr Osborne managed, as he invariably does, and as most Chancellors do, to make us think he had delivered an excellent Budget, simultaneously wise, fair and economically responsible, leaving it to pedants such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the editor of the Spectator to present their pessimistic discoveries in the following days. Thus this Budget will be remembered for the immediate reactions it provoked: Mr Osborne looking even more pleased with himself than usual, and, on this occasion, wearing a suit that fitted; Iain Duncan-Smith enjoying a form of ecstatic release in the stand-up section of the chamber; and Harriet Harman appearing to wonder what on earth it was she was supposed to say.

Labour loyalists pressed to review Ms Harman’s response to the Budget fell back upon the familiar trope that there is no job more difficult in politics than to be the Leader of the Opposition at Budget time. This may be to spare her blushes, but it is patently not true. The person with the most difficult job at Budget time is Speaker Bercow, by dint of the fact that convention prevents him from presiding over the statement itself. One imagines him instead pacing the high-ceilinged rooms of the Speaker’s apartments, rebuking the chairs for being too prolix in their guildedness and howling in frustration that these interventions will never be seen. Only the day before, Mr Bercow had been practising on Greg Mulholland, a hapless Liberal Democrat (the adjective is superfluous: there is no other kind) who had allegedly detained the chamber too long with his question about health policy. So magnificent was Speaker Bercow’s animadversion – which led to Mulholland fleeing the chamber while calling Bercow a pompous ass – that no one really minded that it took at least three times as long to deliver than had the original question.

By contrast, George Osborne’s Budget statement was masterfully sort and stuck to the conventions of confirming those announcements already made to Andrew Marr, the Sunday broadsheets and other outposts of our constitutional infrastructure. Since Budgets are as much about custom as they are economic policy making, Mr Osborne did not disappoint Tory traditionalists, producing the customary lepus ex machina – translated for the modern idiom as “rabbit out of the hat” – as he approached his peroration. The production of the rabbit was not a disappointment to those stern unbending Tories who have thus far survived compassionate Conservatism, although its nature would have been. The Chancellor had already been through his socialist repertoire of persecuting non-coms and taxing banks. Now he was about to appropriate another piece of the left’s clothing.

The “national living wage” is what we used to call the minimum wage before our language became conditioned by reading too many style supplements and most Conservatives are old enough to remember a time when they were having none of it. As recently as last Sunday’s Marr, the Chancellor appeared to be having none of it either, but now that turns out to have been nothing but a piece of legerdemain designed to make his rabbit even more silky-furred and sparkling-eyed when it appeared. The national minimum wage is to be set at £9 an hour by the end of the Parliament, thus allowing economists to model its impact against the most important comparator of all, which is the £8 an hour promised by Labour at the last election.

Subsequent analysis purported to show that the real beneficiary of this move will be the rich, since it seems that there is no end of households where an investment banker’s income is topped up by a partner putting in a couple of shifts a week at Tescos just so that Alastair and Cordelia can have new ski boots for the school trip. Such households have no use for government tax credits, though these get more important as you go further down the income scale and this correlates with the marginal rate at which these benefits will be withdrawn. All of this came out in the wash of the IFS’ calculations which proved, to the intrense satisfaction of all those in the Guardian and elsewhere who were expecting nothing less, that this was a Budget to clobber the already poverty-stricken.. Thus, what had looked in the middle of the week to have been a missed opportunity for grinding the faces of the poor into the dirt, turned out by the end not to have been such a betrayal of the promise of a pure Conservative Budget after all.

Conservatives were also buoyed the fact that one of their traditional enemies – the BBC – took severe casualties in the fighting – and that defence spending is to be kept at a minimum of 2% of GDP, thus sustaining a broader base of fusillade capacity against enemies of all kinds. All of this is thought to have boosted no end Mr Osborne’s chances of leading the Conservative Party. This is a thought that will no doubt have cheered him enormously as he headed into the Capital city fiefdom of his rival Johnson, which was about to be crippled by a 24-hour tube strike.

That Was the Week….

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The efforts of a madman on a beach in Tunisia, and the more drawn out, less explosive, madness of various men in Athens, ensured that domestic matters were shuffled to the background during the course of the political week. The record shows that the Commons spent three days dissecting the Government’s plans for more devolution to Scotland, and that there was an adjournment debate on the old-fashioned topic of keeping open uneconomic coal mines – led by Ed Milliband, late of the leadership parish. Yet none of this constituent matter of the kapok stuffing of democracy, as it were, cut through. Scotland managed to make a minor incision when an English Conservative MP, Philip Hollobone, complained that there were too many MPs whose surname starts with “Mc” holding up the parliamentary voting, but generally the country carried on as if the House of Commons did not exist. The voters of Kettering meanwhile should take note that their delegate is a coward: Mr Hollobone meant to say, but could not quite manage it, that there are simply too many McSomethingorother MPs full stop.

Into this vaccum of domestic politics arrived Norman Lamb, the man whose role it is not to be elected leader of the Liberal Democrats. In the course of fulfilling his destiny, Mr Lamb sought this week to draw our attention to the important issue that there are not enough lesbian characters in Peppa Pig. Mr Lamb is of the opinion that if pre-school children – the primary audience of Peppa Pig, the secondary one being university students – encounter more lesbians at an early age they are less likely to find lesbians remarkable when they grow up. Implicit in this analysis therefore is the idea that the rest of us, who were raised when it was not considered important to introduce Clangers who swing both ways into the storyline, are necessarily a bit more biased against same-sex equality than we ought to be. We must endure this with fortitude and divert a similar atrocity from rushing along the wadi of indifference that leads towards our children

We shall leave aside the proprietaries of a man called Lamb interfering in the world of pigs – this blog has no desire to incite butchers of the different factions to start attacking each other with cleavers – but only consider Mr Lamb’s choice of priorities. If it is the case that Peppa Pig displays an unhealthy attitude towards minorities, then it must also be true that there are other minorities – ISIS terrorists for example, or Aborigines– who are similarly unrepresented in its world. Why would it not be equally to the good of our children to discover them, or even other oppressed creatures such as Liberal Democrats, while following Ms Pig’s charming adventures?

On this topic, as far as one can tell, there is nothing but the silence of the Lamb and we must conclude that this singling out of lesbians is part of a cunning, but scurrilous, tactic to discomfort Tim Farron, the man who will beat Mr Lamb to the ledership prize. Mr Farron, it may not be recalled, voted against the same-sex marriage bill at its third reading, an act that was rooted in some manner of principle, but which he now sincerely regrets because of what are called its optics. Those who believe that the ability of people of the same gender to marry each other is not only the most important issue facing the country, but the only issue, are disproportionately represented among Liberal Democrats. Farron has bad form on the matter, and never mind how much he pleads his support for gay weddings in principle, he is irreparably tarnished. And now Lamb has put him on the spot over Peppa Pig. It is too late. Farron could move the Peppa Pig (Lesbian Character Quota) Bill tomorrow and his position would still be suspect.

Not that this will stop Farron from becoming his party’s next leader for if there is one thing Liberals like better than marrying off to each other people of the same sex it is winning elections, and Mr Farron is deemed the more likely to be able to help them do that. He is, the third reading vote notwithstanding, altogether the more accomplished politician and thus can look forward to being crowned in Bournemouth later in the year at the Lib Dem conference. There will be 200 BBC journalists present to witness this event, we also discovered, which works out as 25 for each one of their Westminster representatives. This is heavy chaperoning indeed, though it should be noted that the BBC has entered in mitigation the plea that not all of those who have signed to attend will end up bothering to go. Thus the egregious waste of licence fee payers money is held to be a less disreputable vice than hanging out on the south coast with a bunch of muddle-heads obsessed with the idea of sexualising CBeebies.

Eventually, of course, it will not be necessary to have party conferences at all – or, for that matter the BBC – since everything will end up being transacted, like justice in Michael Gove’s vision of the future, through social media. BBC3, a television station aimed at adolescents who have had too much Peppa Pig for one day, is to be moved on-line and layers of Corporation management pruned from something like 60 to 50. This, however, may not be enough for the Beeb to stave off George Osborne, with the Chancellor having it in his mind that Auntie might like to pick up the tab for 4.5 million “free” television licences. These are handed out to the elderly on the spurious, if patronising, grounds that there is nothing more germane to their lives than watching daytime television.

Free television licences are so popular that many people are discovering ways of not having to wait until they get old to experience them. The same effect can be achieved by dint of just not paying, on the grounds that all one does is catch-up with iPlayer on one’s handheld. So, in return for part-funding the welfare state, the Budget may tell us that the Beeb is to be allowed to charge for iPlayer. This is a clever way of making sure that those of us who fork over the licence fee get to pay twice for Auntie’s content for the sake of subsidising those who don’t like paying at all.