How very ‘George Osborne’ prime minister’s questions was today. He was not bullying and hectoring, but he showed slight misjudgement and displayed a lot of tactical manoeuvres.
George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, was standing in for David Cameron today who was in Italy.Presumably, this is part of Cameron’s grand tour of Europe.As you will remember this was something upper class young men did in the seventeenth century in search of art, culture and the roots of European civilisation. Cameron has revived the tradition as he seeks to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the European Union, which means he is less often in the House of Commons.
Opposite Osborne stood, not Harriet Harman, but shadow foreign secretary Hillary Benn. Benn is a serious man and he was determined to ask Osborne some serious questions.
The first one was about Talha Asmal, the 17-year-old suicide bomber from Dewsbury who killed himself and 11 others in an Islamic State attack in Iraq. He wanted Osborne to confirm that the government had an agreement with airlines about unaccompanied minors flying to this part of the world, and also that our police were working with the Turkish police on crossing points over to Syria.
So came Osborne’s first misjudgement. In answer to the first question Osborne started by awkwardly quipping: ‘There’s no Benn in the leadership contest but plenty of Bennites’. It was not a very good joke – slightly geeky. Who talks about Bennites now? It was not even true since Jeremy Corbyn is the only candidate who might be thought of as vaguely Bennite. Osborne also failed to answer the question. The government, he said, was still ‘working with airlines’. But, he did not say if it working with the Turkish authorities. It was an omission Benn picked up on.
Benn then pressed him on counter-radicalisation programmes which, he reminded the House, a recent select committee report had said, ‘were not working’. Why, asked Benn, did he think that was? Osborne’s reply was a mechanistic one about the statutory duty now on schools, universities and public bodies to prevent terrorism.
Benn then pushed Osborne in the Syrian refugee question – the worst, he said since the end of the second world war. There was no change in the line from Osborne – and when Benn asked about the people drowning in the Mediterranean, Osborne said although Britain would be playing its part, it was about ‘breaking the link’ and making sure people went through ‘proper European community immigration controls’.
Benn played it well. He had gravitas and control and did not allow Osborne to play any knockabout politics. He also made Osborne sound heartless and weak. Cameron may be on his grand tour but neither he nor his government are showing any leadership on the great foreign policy questions of the day. Labour needs to show them up and it started to today.
Osborne, ever the tactician, had then arranged for almost every Conservative member of parliament to ask a sycophantic question about employment figures or the ‘long term economic plan’. It shows his wide base in the party and his ability to mobilise it. There was a certain smugness in Osborne’s demeanour at having managed it.
The very last question was from angry Tory backwoodsman Sir Gerald Howarth. He asked about whether Osborne would keep to the two per cent defence spending target for ‘the defence of the realm’. For Osborne loathers everywhere it was a relief to see some defiance.
Labour MPs asked questions on cuts. Jim Dowd, Lewisham, wanted to know about public lending rights in libraries now they are all run by volunteers.
Newcomer Jess Phillips, Birmingham Yardley, highlighted housing benefit cuts for women in refuges, which would force them back to their abusers. If it happened, she said, ‘132 abused women would be returned to their violent partners every day’.
David Lammy, Tottenham, asked about rising reports of rapes and sexual crime in London.
There was little Punch and Judy today, but we were still left none the wiser at the end. The Tories are not showing much leadership either at home or abroad.