Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Sketch: George Osborne's petrolhead's budget

If the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s budget red box could be personified, it would probably take the form of Jeremy Clarkson, driving a dirty great Ferrari. And as if Treasury civil servants had discretely passed Osborne’s budget statement to the producers of Top Gear for editing, Osborne delivered a gas-guzzling, petrolhead-placating budget, the opening paragraph of which appeared to have been written around a BBC conference table with Richard Hammond and James May pitching in every fourth line or so.

With a frog in his throat, possibly caused by the Chancellor being asphyxiated on the exhaust fumes created by parking his supercar budget in the Commons chamber, the occupant of the space opposite – let's say a quiet and thoughtful Toyota Prius such as the Green MP Caroline Lucas - must surely have considered it a blast of carbon monoxide in the face to anyone hoping that the Tories might be taking green issues a little more seriously. (Actually, the Member for Brighton Pavilion was more concerned with a Green Investment bank that isn't really a bank, and a windfall profit on nuclear energy via a carbon floor price, but let’s not let small details get in the way of a good sketch).

“Last year’s emergency budget was about rescuing the nation’s finances and paying for the mistakes of the past” said the Chancellor.

“Today’s budget is about reforming the nation’s economy so that we have enduring growth and jobs in the future.

“And doing what we can to help families with the growing cost of living and the high price of oil!” he shouted.

It’s on everyone’s mind of course. The crises in the Middle East have crystallised debate over many a breakfast table, by every water-cooler and in every corner shop. How on earth are we going to continue to feed our poor, starving cars?

It was a budget for making things and not for making things up, apparently. It was about the difficult decisions we’ve already taken.

“We gambled for a debt-fuelled model of growth that failed” continued the Chancellor on his motoring analogy, already laden with metaphors.

He then turned to the forecasts for the next few years, delivered with the same sort of measured aplomb as Lord Prescott's attempt at the Shipping Forecast for Comic Relief. It's just a formality really, the Chancellor's forecast.

“It has been known for Chancellors to rattle these off at such great speed that no-one will keep up or notice.

Not so for George in his first 'non-emergency' budget.

The outlook wasn't great, to be fair. Growth had been weaker than expected in the final quarter of 2010, although slightly stronger growth in later years was expected over Cromarty, Forth and Tyne. Visibility, moderate occasionally poor.

Further wrath was incurred for Gordon Brown and the Scandalous Selling Of The Gold Reserves. The Conservative benches are always up in arms at this, and the Chancellor announced that “we will purchase a range of high quality assets, to replenish our reserves”, accompanied by indignant cries of anguish.

“We will not be able to replenish the gold reserves sold at a record low” said Osborne, now morphed into a Billingsgate fish merchant, wheeling and dealing cod, haddock and plaice.

But the most amusing thing about these budgets is the obscure announcements which are thrown up. Savings in the transport department meant that we could afford more investment in regional railways.

“We can commit to Swindon-Kemble redoubling scheme!”, he announced, which will quite literally move mountains of ballast in the Cotswolds. No doubt the Chancellor had been watching Richard Wilson's expose of the country's rail network on Channel 4 on Monday night and like the veteran One Foot In The Grave actor, had decided that reading your Guardian in a carriage toilet just wasn't good enough. It was certainly a case of “I do believe it” for one or two Coalition MPs in that area.

It all ended with a bit of karaoke from the Labour benches, in not-so-angelic unison.

The Leader of the Opposition talked about the Prime Minister's priorities for “growth, growth growth!”. But it was “DOWN, DOWN, DOWN” according to the bellowing basses and screeching sopranos in the opposition.

“And when the economy retracted in the fourth quarter, what did he do? He blamed the snow! He was away on the piste!” jeered Mr Miliband.

“The right type of snow for a skiing holiday, the wrong type of snow for our economy!"

As Mr Miliband said, the Chancellor should just calm down a little bit. He might actually break something...

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