Whip’s Notebook: Izzy whizzy George gets dizzy and blows £200 million

by Jon Ashworth

Tory MPs regularly receive briefings from their parliamentary resource unit (PRU) giving them lines to take, suggested responses to letters on policy, attack lines for use in the chamber and that sort of thing. Until last week the PRU will have had standard response scripts on the stocks about the importance of the pasty tax, caravan tax, church renovation tax and charity tax. No doubt these scripts would include a line reminding their constituents that backing down on these new revenue raisers would be deeply irresponsible given the size of the deficit. Loyal Tory MPs will have emailed out these responses whenever a constituent got in touch complaining about the new tax hikes. They will have used the lines in their weekly MP’s column in the local paper and in interviews on local radio.

Behind the scenes some poor staffer in the PRU will have been relieved and grateful that the briefing was available for their Tory MPs. No doubt she or he had been getting a barrage of calls and emails from MPs’ pesky researchers asking for a line.

The poor staffer will have called the junior special adviser in the Treasury who would actually rather focus on important matters like making sure his name is on the list for the Spectator summer party. The special adviser will have no doubt grumpily despaired “why can’t they use the budget PRU briefing, don’t they realise how busy we are?!” Our heroic PRU staffer persists ”but we’re getting lots of calls, didn’t you see the finance bill debate? No one spoke up to support the policy apart from that chap desperate for promotion who founded YouGov.”

Eventually the Treasury special adviser relents and signs off an agreed brief while remaining irritated that his more important special advisor colleague Rupert Harrison gets the Spectator summer party invite not him.

But at least the tenacious staffer is happy and finally emails the pasty tax brief out to a grateful parliamentary party and now turns attention to the “Hunt hasn’t really broken the ministerial Code” brief that the Number 10 Political Office are demanding goes out.

But an updated PRU brief wasn’t enough to satisfy MPs or more importantly public opinion.

The Government’s majority had already been reduced to just 25 on the votes on the pasty and caravan tax. They should be winning votes in the Commons by 83. Overall 31 Tory MPs – around 10 per cent of the Conservative Parliamentary Party – voted against one or more of George Osborne’s budget measures.

And if Osborne thought winning the votes was enough to put this issue to bed, he was wrong.

Lib Dem MPs were handing out pasties in Parliament, 4 Tory MPs brought petitions to the Commons on the caravan tax even though they voted for it, Labour’s frontbench Treasury team were constantly up and at them. MPs were calling adjournment debates forcing ministers back to the Commons to defend the policy. Just two weeks ago poor David Gauke, Exchequer Secretary was sent out to defend the pasty tax in a Westminster hall debate and confirmed that samosas cooked and sold in sweet shops, many of which we have in Leicester, will have VAT as well.

And then in the week that Tony Blair, Vince Cable and Jeremy Hunt were all at Leveson we witnessed what appeared like a dizzying u-turn a day from Osborne. In total he makes £200 million of u-turns with no explanation of how these latest unfunded commitments will be paid for. That’s a lot of cash for Osborne to spend to try to save his draining credibility.

So what a shambles. And how frustrating for all those Tory MPs who sent out the PRU brief and loyally defended the policy in public? As the Tory whips will know, the more this happens the less backbenchers will be prepared to go out on a limb in public and defend difficult policies in the future.

One of my early whip’s notebooks observed that while Osborne is tactically shrewd at political positioning he has in fact got every major economic judgement wrong since he took on the Treasury brief. I’m now beginning to wonder if I was actually too generous.

His recent budget has been a political disaster for the Tories. Indeed it seems that Tory MPs are beginning to share my analysis with one anonymous Tory writing in the Mail on Sunday that Osborne fails to put in the hard graft necessary to be an effective chancellor.

Meanwhile and extraordinarily Osborne’s own parliamentary bag carrier Sajid Javid apparently warned his boss not to introduce the granny tax. Things must not be well in ‘team George’ when one of the most loyal lieutenants is going off the Osborne reservation.

What’s more, Tory activists commenting on Conservative Home appear equally unimpressed with their chancellor – “as for Osborne’s leadership ambition – delusional or what”, “Osborne has clearly been promoted beyond his abilities”‘ and “George Osborne has been shown to be incompetent” are just a few of the choice comments, there were plenty more.

But the centrepiece of the budget, the cut in the 50 pence rate handing a £40,000 tax cut to millionaires remains in place. A move that former Cameron speechwriter Ian Birrell wrote “sends a missile into 6 years of Tory modernisation”. Reversing the millionaires’ tax cut alongside putting in place a plan for jobs and growth should have been the U-turns Osborne embarked upon last week.

Oh and if anyone gets an email from a Tory MP saying these aren’t U-turns at all and “that the only thing worse than listening is not listening” do send me a copy for a laugh but spare a thought for that poor PRU staffer who had to rewrite the scripts and get the grumpy Treasury special advisor to sign them off.

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South and an opposition whip

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