It’s always fun to see George Osborne being put on the back foot, and today’s attempt at justifying his over-extravagant claims (or indeed lies) about gaining a concession from Europe over its £1.7 billion surcharge was a classic of its kind – even more so because he allowd himself to be flattered into lying to Parliament.
This blog was one of many who challenged his claim within minutes of it having been made, so it was a joy to see Osborne dragged to the House of Commons to answer Ed Balls’ urgent question – a demand for a statement on the matter in which Osborne repeated the claims we’ve heard before: He’d halved the bill, he’d delayed the bill, he’ll pay no interest on the bill.
We know he hasn’t halved it; all that happened was the EU took pity on him and agreed to bring forward a rebate that was coming to the UK in any event, meaning that – instead of receiving some money back from the Union – we’re just paying less in.
It is likely that pity also applied in the decision to delay payment of the bill until the next financial year – one can picture the scene: Osborne imploring, “Please don’t make me pay! The deficit is already out of control this year and you’re asking me to add another billion to it!” – and the decision not to demand interest for every day’s non-payment after December 1. In fact, with an agreement to defer payment until the 2015-16 financial year, it would be unfair to demand such interest.
Having won those concessions from a position of weakness, Osborne’s mistake was to come back and pretend that he was in a position of strength. Nobody believed him.
Today, in the House of Commons chamber, even his own backbenchers seemed to find it hard to put up the pretence. Meanwhile, Mr Balls had the floor:
He began: “Talk about smoke and mirrors, Mr Speaker—I can barely see you through the Chancellor’s fog and bluster!”
He quoted the Austrian, Dutch and Irish finance ministers, saying: “They are queuing up to contradict the Chancellor.
“Is it not now clear that the Chancellor totally failed to get a better deal for the taxpayer?” he asked. “He did not reduce Britain’s backdated bill by a single penny. The British people don’t like being taken for fools, and his attempts to fool them have totally unravelled.”
Labour backbencher Geoffrey Robinson had to withdraw his words after claiming Osborne had committed “a gross act of deception worthy more of Goebbels than the British Chancellor of the Exchequer.” Clearly he is a long-term reader of this blog.
Paul Flynn called Osborne’s “result” – as the Chance(llo)r described it – as “a confidence trick”.
Osborne and his pals were deep in their own narrative by then, whining about details of the rebate and the interest rate on the surcharge, and trying to score points with questions about Labour MPs’ loyalty to their leader. Somebody should have told them that a couple of Labour MPs complaining about Ed Miliband is as nothing, compared to the defection of two Tory MPs to UKIP and calls by a further – 22, was it? – for David Cameron’s resignation or removal.
Oh yes… and a Mr James Arbuthnot seemed to think that the surcharge, which came about because the UK economy had performed better than expected over a period of time, was “because of the stunningly impressive handling of the economy by my right hon. Friend”.
To this, Osborne responded: “One of the reasons why this surcharge, as he puts it, has arisen is because of the strong UK economic performance relative to the continent of Europe.” If he had left it there, we would not be able to call this statement what it was. He didn’t; he added: “We should not be happy about the poor performance of the European continent. We want the European continent to be performing better.”
The second part of his statement makes it clear that he is referring to the recent performance of the continental EU countries, meaning that he was applying comments about the UK’s “strong economic performance” to the period when he was Chancellor.
He was lying to Parliament. We all know that the surcharge has arisen because of the UK’s strong economic performance between 2002 and 2009, when Labour was in office, under chancellors named Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. It had nothing to do with anyone called Osborne.
Having established that lie, there really isn’t any need to go further into the debate. There is no reason to believe anything Osborne says. The Goebbels reference – not permitted in the Commons chamber – is entirely apt; he was trying to feed us The Big Lie.
Never mind, George – you’ve succeeded in halving wage growth!
What a shame that it isn’t likely to be a vote-winner for you.
Postscript: Ed Balls is also to be congratulated for his handling of Martha Kearney on the BBC’s The World At One today (Monday). Ms Kearney was in belligerent mood, keen to interrupt Mr Balls before he could make any meaningful points about Labour’s economic plans. He was trying to make the perfectly reasonable point that the UK can clear its debts by building up the economy, but she dismissed this as a project that would take many years to pay off (thanks for the vote of confidence, Martha!) and pressed him to tell her what cuts he would make when he had already clarified what he would rather do instead.
Then she asked why he had not supported the #WeBackEd campaign on Twitter. He pointed out that he had made his support for Mr Miliband perfectly clear in a radio interview at the end of last week, before that campaign had started. “I think that was a silly question,” he concluded – and she had to admit defeat.
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