AFTER months of playing with imaginary numbers, yesterday will go down as the day little Boy George grew up. Gone was the silky blue bowtie and tails of his youth as he took the floor, hunched over his brief. Gone were the floppy curls of dark hair in favour of a sensible brush to the side. Almost gone too was the public schoolboy sneer. After all the practice and strategising and electioneering, there was a sense that, finally, this was the real deal.
We were even privileged to see the very moment, as he began a sentence, when his voice actually broke: “For the next three years…” he said, and his cadence cracked momentarily back to that of the smug boy who first dreamed up the phrase “tax on jobs” and promised he had “no plans to put up VAT”. And as he went on, it was all strictly grownup business – lists of cuts and figures delivered just a little too fast in low, nasal tones, with only the occasional glance up.
As it started, Nick Clegg sat like a sleepy participant at a wake, nodding rhythmically to Osborne’s left. Danny Alexander pouted like a chastened Tom Sawyer on the right, perhaps dreaming of his days painting fences in the press office of Cairngorms National Park just a few years ago. The mystery of where David Cameron had gotten to was solved part way through as Osborne shifted and Dave’s rosy face peeped out from directly behind the Chancellor, lounging between the Lib Dem window dressing.
Along the front benches, an anguished-looking Vince Cable was hunched over as if constipated. Nearby, Phillip Hammond seemed to be sucking on a gob stopper; Theresa May had pulled off another extraordinary jacket – she would have camouflaged well in the Hayward Gallery. Further over, Eric Pickles nibbled at his little finger like an overfed Dr Evil.
The figures kept coming and biros wobbled quietly behind the Chancellor. Blue jackets gleamed for the government, a strange preponderance of mauve glowed for the opposition. As Osborne moved from scrapping Gordon’s “Golden Rule” to abolishing the Treasury’s “euro preparation unit”, Clegg and former pro-euro campaigner Alexander smiled ruefully through the jeers.
The speech couldn’t go much longer without an ill-judged World Cup joke, just to prove that Osborne “gets it”. It came hot on the heels of the 20 per cent “VAT bombshell” (copyright Saint Vince) and the scrapping of Labour’s special cider duty, as if 30p off a pint might help us forget paying extra for everything else (not a bad idea come to think of it).
Too soon, it was Harriet Harman’s turn. She threw herself into the fray, hair flying, papers flapping. Charging in with the same old line about the “same old Tories”, she moved quickly to playground complaints. “It is unfair!” she yelled to the rafters. “Unfair on this and that! Unfair that we’re not in charge any more!” read the subtext. But she reached terra firma on VAT and the doll-like faces of Yvette Cooper and Liam “No Money Left” Byrne bobbed like nodding dogs momentarily in time. As she scored a blow on “national treasure turned Treasury poodle” Cable, the object of her offensive gritted his teeth and smiled impotently. Behind the chummy front benches, Lib Dems shifted in their seats.
As she sat down, MPs dropped like flies and Osborne gathered his papers. The country might be bracing itself for a painful budget crunch, but at least our schoolboy Chancellor seems to have left his snot-nosed debating society days – and his prep school shorts – behind.