A dead Christmas tree – and still George Osborne smirked

Christmas Tree And Bauble

Gosh, George Osborne looks smug.

As Labour's John Denham pointed out, the worse the news he brings us, the more pleased with himself he seems. He was smirking before, during and after his autumn statement. Hasn't he heard about the smirking ban? Why can't he just huddle in the cold outside with a tight little group of other smirkers?

And the news was bad. No chancellor in modern times has had to admit such a complete failure to get his numbers right. (Though some might have shown a little more humility. I name no names but Gordon Brown knows who he is.)

"Potemkin village" is political jargon for dressing something up to look much better than it is. On the wasteland of the British economy, Osborne has created the world's first Potemkin desert. A few green shoots of recovery are scattered forlornly across the wind-blasted sands.

Or to be more topical, his speech resembled the Cratchits' Christmas tree – dead, bare sticks with a few baubles hanging limply down.

He got off on to the wrong foot by declaring at the very beginning, "it's taking time, but the British economy is healing!"

Labour members, who had been working themselves up towards a huge guffaw, were able to let rip immediately. Then moments later he did it again: "We are making progress … it's a hard road, but we are getting there!"

Labour was running out of breath to chortle adequately. As the end to the deficit and the beginning of growth disappears into a mist-shrouded future, we felt like passengers waiting on a freezing platform for a train to arrive through the snow, a further 10-minute delay announced every 10 minutes.

All this news delivered in Mr Osborne's persistent voice, the one that makes him sound like Ann Widdecombe. Close your eyes and you hear her: high-pitched, insistent, untroubled by uncertainty.

There were baubles – a road widening here, a future cut in taxes there, a further reduction in the corporation tax which seems, for most big corporations these days, to be voluntary.

And then he announced that there would be no increase in petrol duty, and the Tories, suddenly aware that this was the fairy at the top of their tree, finally let loose with their own great roar.

The Tories were perhaps slightly cheered up by Ed Balls's response. Mr Balls was not at his best. He began as badly as Osborne had, by declaring "the national deficit is not rising, er, is rising. I'll start again ... the national deficit is, er, er, is rising ..."

He said that Osborne had not produced adequate figures to back his claims. "We will see if there has been any dodgy dealing!" he said, to mock Tory outrage at the very suggestion that any chancellor could possibly massage the figures, while Osborne spread out his arms in a Del Boy "who, me?" gesture. The chancellor had said that he was would not waver. "But he is not wavering, but drowning!"

This quote from Stevie Smith caused outrage in Tory MPs, not least Daniel Byles, who got so excited that the Speaker, in one of his increasingly rococo admonitions, advised him to swallow a calming pill, or even take up yoga.

I wondered if Mr Balls was perhaps recovering from something, rather like the New Zealand rugby team had a tummy bug before losing to England on Saturday. He ended by quoting Nadine Dorries, now the first refuge of Labour MPs who have nothing much to say. "Can't someone get him out of here?" Balls demanded.

Osborne said this was the worst ever reply to an autumn statement, which was, perhaps, unfair, but cheered him up. It was a fine example of smirking class culture.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Simon Hoggart, for The Guardian on Wednesday 5th December 2012 23.42 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010