by Freddy Barker and Godfrey Barker
Channel 4’s Ask the Chancellors last night promised all the excitement of One Foot in the Grave. It did not disappoint. Messrs Alistair Darling, George Osborne and Vince Cable appeared dressed in black, resembling nothing so much as the doctor, the padre and the undertaker on the Promenade Deck of the Titanic. For an hour they droned the last rites on the British economy.
The mystery of whether it was too late to save the patient dominated the questions of an audience preselected by Channel 4. The 50-strong crowd cheered St Vincent of Cable to the echo, but denied a single handclap to Mr Darling or Mr Osborne.
The three would-be Chancellors made clear that reviving the moribund economy depended on inflicting a thousand cuts. Questioners wanted to know if they had the guts to go through with this.
‘What are your personal qualities? Are you up to the job?’ opened Grace Nugent, a trainee solicitor. Despite a demure tone and the faintest of smiles, she radiated Scottish suspicion.
I have energy, replied Mr Osborne handsomely. I’m experienced, revealed Mr Cable; I’m the one who saw a terrible disaster coming. I have judgement, responded Mr Darling; I’ve taken the right decisions all along.
At all this the audience might have hooted, but no. It was asleep already. So apparently was Mr Darling.
‘We have come through one of the deepest downturns in human history,’ he proclaimed dreamily. Come through? He was talking in his sleep, sleeping in his talk. But no one noticed. The Darling Effect on an audience – equivalent to triple Horlicks on top of a bedtime malt whisky – had worked its wondrous effect. The crowd had departed for another world, like him. At this monstrous howler not a whisper of protest was uttered.
Channel 4 woke up its list of questioners, one by one. Best was Ann Stalling, a retired battleaxe teacher from, presumably, St Trinians. ‘We can’t afford public sector pensions,’ she snapped. ‘Will you cut them?’
At this, she roused the nearest thing to passion all night. ‘Scandalous, just absolutely outrageous,’ declared Cable before ignoring her question. ‘Cap ‘em at £50,000, audit them,’ declared Osborne severely. ‘Public sector pensions need reform as much as private sector pensions,’ said Darling informatively.
Some of the questions were unanswerable however. ‘When are you going to tell the truth?’ inquired Raj Dalliwall. ‘None of you saw the crisis coming and you ignored numerous warnings. So how can we trust you now?’ asked Tayne Olive.
But the majority were soft targets. ‘I’m a student. I’m scared about the future,’ announced Janina Darmoe through Gothic horror teeth. ‘How do I get a job and buy a house?’ None of the three Chancellors had a clue. George Osborne said something about holding her hand while she searched for a job. Ms Darmoe looked strangely contented at this. What girl wants a solution when sympathy is so much more enjoyable?
The questions, by and large, were far sharper than the answers. ‘How deep will the cuts be? When will you slash bank bonuses? Don’t we risk a brain drain if we drive financiers abroad?’ were most pertinently asked, only to be enveloped in clouds of fog.
‘If you safeguard the NHS from future cuts, won’t you have to slash deeper on the Army, on the arts, on crime prevention, on schools?’ asked a gent who quoted the Institute of Fiscal Studies in support. All three Chancellors referred so reverently to the IFS in reply that there seemed a case for electing it to take charge of the Treasury.
Towards the end of the ordeal, there were brief moments of violence.
Darling tried to brand Osborne an irresponsible Tory spender in parsimonious Nearer My God To Thee tones of doom. Osborne denied it. Cable then labelled Osborne the friend of the irresponsible banking rich who wanted to dip their snouts ‘back in the trough’. Osborne’s denial was lost however in the torrential applause of the liberal audience for Cable.
Osborne then tried to get Darling and Cable to commit to an immediate bank tax. They declined. Osborne told Cable after one notably vague answer that what he said did not actually matter as he would not be Chancellor after 1 June.
I’m not so sure. After this performance, a hung Parliament with Cable at the Treasury in a Con-Lib partnership is not to be ruled out.