Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Alistair Darling's sleepwalking spell

My parliamentary sketch, from today's Herald which has a whole section on the Pre-Budget report.

"I blame Baron Baker of Dorking - you'll remember him as Kenneth Baker, the old Tory home secretary. I don't hold him personally responsible for the world economic crash that took us to this pretty pass, oh no, but it was him who yawned first, within five minutes of Alistair Darling getting to his feet.

You know what it's like. One person yawns, then another, and before you know it the whole place is nodding off, sleepwalking through £20bn of expenditure and the biggest borrowing spree since the beginning of time.

Officially this was a statement to end of the Age of Irresponsibility and mark the beginning of an Age of Austerity. It could have been the beginning of the Age of Aquarius as far as most of the audience was concerned; it seemed to last forever.

Baron Baker wasn't on his own, the whole row of Lords, snug in their gallery above the Commons floor, were in the race to be the first to nod off. Only the ex-chancellor, Lawson, and Lord Forsyth (still so avowedly Thatcherite that he forces himself to get by on four hours sleep a night) managed to remain alert.

Now we know what Alistair Darling was doing spending all that time locked in the Treasury. He was practising the correct pitch for a speech that would put the House of Commons to sleep.

The effect wasn't immediately obvious. When he started his sonorous statement the Tories jeered in a perfunctory way whenever he emphasised that the economic crisis had started in America. But soon they were hushed by the shepherd of Bernera.

Michael Fabricant, the outrageously blond Tory, kicked against the drug but he too was silenced with the help of Mr Speaker. Michael Moore, the Scottish LibDem, managed stay awake, or asleep on his feet, at the entrance to the chamber, for the entire speech. The rest of us fought for consciousness and calculators as the numbers tumbled out.

On and on he droned and with a few billion here, a few billion there, a spell of somnolence fell across the chamber. He sped up only once, when reading the figures for national borrowing. How much was that?

Obviously there were some exceptions. Mrs Darling, the Chancellor's wife, sat in the upper gallery, rapt, but in front of her the rows of Lords, people who sleep for a living, were among the first victims.

When Mr Darling announced his red and Sherwood Green credentials - robbing the rich to pay the poor - the Labour benches could only be prodded awake for a delusory cheer. This was meant to be a symbolic moment guys, the return of socialism - wake up!

At one stage only George Osborne, Stewart Hosie for the SNP and Vince Cable were taking notes because they were speaking next. In fact, Vince was not taking notes, he already knows the answers.

Outside the immediate environs the spell did not work, though. The financial markets shot up and in TV studios graphs showing national debt shot upwards too.

It took George "danger UXB" Osborne to jolt people back to life. A voice as shrill as a Monday morning alarm clock, the shadow Chancellor accused Mr Darling of being addicted to borrowing. He was wrong, on figures like that it is borrowing that is addicted to Alistair Darling. It seems we are in hock for £458bn between now and 2013, and that's being optimistic.

For those of you who slept through the whole thing let me put that figure in some perspective - it's a huge sum of money.

Oh, I've just checked, the Age of Aquarius lasts only 2150 years and I'm sure Darling's statement took longer than that. Or is that the year the debt will be paid off, or the year of the next election? Anyway, the figures are a nightmare.

What's that? Wake you up when it's all over? Some hope.

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