MPs always like to take their medicine with a dollop of sugar, ideally well-mixed with a slather of school-boy sneers and jeers. The public, on the other hand, won’t swallow anything but the bitterest pill when it comes to bad news.
So after a casual slap-around at PMQs, only an avalanche of the worst possible tidings would settle the bullies’ playground that is parliament.
“It is unavoidable,” Osborne thundered – or would have, if he had the voice for it. Time to take an ice pick to “the interest on the interest on the interest of the debts”, he declared: honourable gentlemen, think of the children!
Hands fluttering this way and that as if enacting a shadow puppet show, the Chancellor iterated between interesting shapes. Rows of figures and regulations saw little action: the fingers lay like well-behaved soldiers either side of his notes.
Arguments were punctuated by splayed fingers in a strangle-the-puppy formation, thence flowing into an unfortunate slicing gesture upon the despatch box for very emphatic points – “local people”, “brave service men and women” – chop!
But it was during the transitions that the nervous ticks made their presence known – a sudden convulsive clasping of the fingers, a shift of the feet, a slightly defensive turn sideways. All we lacked was a projector to light up the dancing digits.
Yet it was not the hands, but Osborne’s fragile vocal chords that shredded themselves upon this cruel barrage of cuts. One could hear them snapping as we rocketed through the “time limit on contributory employment and support allowance”, rollicked past the “collapse of the Presbyterian Mutual Society”, howled down “the hard (but upgraded) road ahead” and stumbled breathlessly upon “rail electrification between Manchester, Liverpool, Preston and Blackpool”. The pinched tones broke as they hacked at “tough but fair decisions”, and yet not a hot lemon tea in sight. The House is a harsh place.
Behind his manic Chancellor, David Cameron gazed at the ceiling as if trying to do the sums in his head. Clegg chit-chatted coolly with Danny Alexander like an aloof older brother and, with increasing frequency, leaned forwards with a searching glance back to his right. Was it David Laws he was looking for, the lost first secretary sitting sedately in the second row?
It wasn’t until Osborne began a detailed traffic report of the fate he had planned for the nation’s motorways that the House lit up again. Roads – now here was something to get excited about! Philip Hammond’s face drifted sideways like a crumpled plastic bag.
Calm returned as Alan Johnson arose from the opposition benches like Dracula from his coffin. What an impressive spectacle, this immaculately groomed old timer set amid the puffed-up pigeons on the front benches. The silver hair – Tin-Tin meets Mr Whippy – ready to win bronze at Crufts. The black-veined tie and suit ready for a Halloween gala, if only he hadn’t a chancellor to dispatch.
He smiled over at the government benches, a pedantic vampire anticipating a feast, but when the rhetoric came, it stuttered. A well-researched crib sheet sat uneasily alongside attempts at reasonableness: “Spending does have to be reduced but…. Jobs, jobs, jobs… jobs!” Jobs, indeed.
Across the way, the wrinkles made their way from our chancellor’s knotted fingers to his larynx and by now had cut deep into his brow. But if his voicebox is all George has to sacrifice during the coming months, he can count himself a lucky boy.