Bluff king George? Osborne's budget was a lesson in sleight of hand

Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

Given the choice George Osborne would rather have stayed in bed watching Jeremy Kyle. Failing that he’d have settled for appearing on Jeremy Kyle. Anything but give a budget statement in which he would have to admit that almost everything he’d said on his previous three budgets had turned out to be either misleading or inaccurate.

George fidgeted nervously in his seat before getting the nod from the deputy Speaker. A quick sip of water and he was off. “Down-is-up-up-is-down,” he said hurriedly, hoping no one would notice the obvious contradictions if he raced through his speech quickly enough. “We-choose-the-long-term-even-though-our-long-term-plan-isn’t-working-I-would-blame-the-last-government-only-I-was-the-last-government-so-I’ll-blame-foreign-countries-instead-we-have-the-world’s-best-economy-apart-from-the-ones-that-are-doing-better-than-us.”

A gasp for air, another slug of water and a quick look behind him to gauge the impact on the benches behind him. Not good. Last year, there had been pools of moisture in the aisles as the Tories had surrendered to an ecstatic, collective orgasm; now there wasn’t even a hint of a splash. Just a wall of stony faces. George slipped a hand into his jacket pocket. Damn. He’d left the rabbit behind. Worse still, he didn’t even have the batteries.

Bluff it, George, bluff it, he told himself. It had worked for him in the past and it just might work again. Remember you’re a leader; remember you want to be their leader.

“The-Office-for-Budget-Responsibility-agrees-with-me-that-leaving-the-EU-is-really-really-dangerous,” he continued, banging his fist on the dispatch box to compensate for the lack of confidence he felt. The OBR had been wrong about almost everything before; he couldn’t afford for it to be wrong on this. Fingers crossed, though. The Eurosceptics exchanged glances and scowled.

He needed a narrative. What was it this time? Not the stuff about being the party of the builders, surely? Of course not. That was it. “Road-map-for-the-future-budget-for-the-next-generation,” he said. Or, to be precise, the next-but-one generation, as the next generation was already a lost cause. No point throwing good money after bad, what with their student debt and zero-hours contracts. And definitely nothing for the disabled. After all, whatever had the disabled ever done for him?

Time for one last sleight of hand. “We-are-going-to-impose-a-sugar-tax-because-all-the-kiddies-have-becomes-chubsters-after-we-sold-off-all-the-school-playing-fields,” he added, briefly remembering a conversation he had once had with Jamie Oliver. Now he was in the home straight. Just a few tax breaks for the small business and the middle classes and he was done. Bish, bash, bosh. Lovely jubbly.

George sat down to less than heartfelt cheers. There was no lurve to feel this time, just a token slap on the back from the prime minister. “How do you think it went, Dave?” George asked, trying and failing to contain his neediness. “It was OK, I suppose,” Dave replied. “But to tell you the truth I wasn’t really listening. It’s your career that’s on the line, not mine. I couldn’t give a monkeys if you become party leader or not.”

Never mind, Jeremy Corbyn was bound to come to his rescue. You could normally rely on the Labour leader to fail to rise to the big occasion and replying to a budget that even those who wrote it haven’t fully understood was one of the toughest gigs in Westminster. George settled in for the car crash. That never came. Dressed in a sharp new suit, Corbyn delivered one of his sharpest performances yet in the Commons.

“This budget is the culmination of six years of failure,” he began, his voice angry with intent. Even a few of his many enemies on the Labour benches began to look up and pay attention. Corbyn pressed on. His speech didn’t always bear much relation to anything George had actually said – he hadn’t been listening when the chancellor was talking about small business – and it did sometimes feel as if he was reading it for the first time, but the unfamiliar can sometimes create a feeling of immediacy.

Then something unprecedented happened. Corbyn made a gag. Or read one out that someone else had written.“This government has built 12 homes in Ebbsfleet for every government press release,” he said. “We need more press releases.” People laughed. Not at him, but with him. George’s day had unexpectedly just gone from bad to worse.

Powered by article was written by John Crace, for The Guardian on Wednesday 16th March 2016 18.51 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010