Darling and Cameron slug it out

LISTENING to Alistair Darling speak for almost an hour was never going to be an exciting experience, but yesterday he was political diazepam. At one point I expected the whips to come round handing out Pro Plus. John Denham, the local governments minister, in particular appeared to be battling with unconsciousness.

The only person who seemed wide awake was the prime minister, and that was because Yvette Cooper was cuddling up to him in a most alarming way. It was either a scowling, passive-aggressive attempt at flirtation, or a desperate need to squeeze herself into camera-shot. Either way, it was disturbing, and Gordon Brown squirmed like a teenager battling with feelings of gratitude and terror. He must have been hoping that it was all a bad dream.

Through the fog of semi-consciousness, I am sure that I heard the chancellor announce that he wanted the country to lead the world in the manufacture of “electric chars”. For a moment images sprung to mind of solar-powered tea-ladies with carbon neutral urns wheeling their trollies down every corridor in Britain, perhaps made by vast Wallace and Gromit-style factories in the Midlands. But – alas – it turned out that he had mis-spoken, had meant to say “electric cars” and was talking about a Nissan plant in Middlesbrough. Still, if any engineering entrepreneurs are reading, you can have that idea for free.

Another announcement which I thought I had dreamed but which turned out to have been real was a walloping rise in the price of cider. It was something to do with “long-standing anomalies”, which sums up the cloudy memories I have of long-ago nights on the scrumpy. I suppose Labour can kiss goodbye to the tramp vote.

Just as we were all nodding off again, Darling dropped his bombshell, announcing a tax information-sharing regime with Belize, where of course Tory deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft is based. The Tory front bench all looked like they had just swallowed a frog. With another one dropped down William Hague’s collar.

David Cameron began his response like a man who had just woken from a deep and refreshing doze. He seemed unaccountably miffed that the government had nicked his policies. It was his idea to tax super-strength cider, he moaned, and his idea to raise the threshold for stamp duty to £250,000 for first-time buyers too, dammit. Somebody should tell him that voters don’t care who implements the things they want, as long as they get implemented.

You’d have thought that the Tories might be trying to win over the City at the moment, given how unpopular George Osborne is in the Square Mile, so eyebrows on trading floors will have raised at a bout of totally unnecessary banker-bashing. “There is one thing the Prime Minister got right,” Cameron said, for no apparent reason. “It’s when he told an audience of bankers: ‘What you as the City of London have done for financial services, we as a government intend to do for the economy as a whole.’ That’s a pledge he’s met in full.”

Is he saying that the City is as financially clueless as the Labour Party? Really? It can be hard to love this Tory government-in-waiting. It might be a start if they stop kicking their natural supporters in search of the popular vote. Cameron may come to regret that bit of flippancy.