This is very funny writing. You don’t need to know the characters or the context to enjoy it. But there’s a guide to the dramatis personae at the bottom just in case.
George Osborne’s dry and dusty reception at the Treasury committee – The chairman became so dry one feared if the sun came out his body might crumble into a yellow pile (by Simon Hoggart)
George Osborne, the chancellor, was in playful mood when he appeared at the Treasury committee. By contrast, the committee chairman, Andrew Tyrie, was dry. Dry as autumn leaves blowing across a deserted country lane. Dry as a cask of Manzanilla sherry. As dry as an Egyptian mummy’s armpit.
Mr Osborne was defending his cuts. Members of the committee, including the desiccated Mr Tyrie, felt he had exaggerated the extent of the crisis we faced and had come up with spending reductions that will hurt the poorest most.
“You said,” uttered Mr Tyrie – a Tory himself – in a voice that would have set newly washed hair, “this was a progressive budget. But it wasn’t a progressive budget, was it?”
Mr Osborne tried to speak but the dryness wafted over and clogged his mouth, like dust from a forgotten cupboard in an empty castle.
“You were over-egging it a bit to call it a progressive budget! And your statement that we were on the brink of bankruptcy. Wasn’t that a bit over the top?”
Mr Tyrie’s brow was furrowed. His brow is almost always furrowed. If he ever wins £1m on his premium bonds – not that he would invest anything in a financial instrument that George Osborne might have influence over – his forehead will still resemble a freshly ploughed field.
The chancellor tried to reply. “The situation was incredibly serious,” he said, referring to May this year.
Other parts of Mr Tyrie’s face became furrowed. He resembled WH Auden, watching the last bus whizz past. “That is not the same as saying that we were on the brink of bankruptcy!” he barked.
At this point I noticed that the Treasury’s permanent secretary, Sir Nicholas Macpherson, was looking puzzled. He has the most expressive face of any mandarin I’ve ever seen. Sometimes he stared straight and stonily ahead, as if he had spotted Medusa sneaking into the room. Or perhaps Ann Widdecombe dancing. At other times his eyes bulged in disbelief. Occasionally he seemed to be overcome by laughter at an unshared joke. Sometimes he contrived a rictus-like smile, like the Joker digesting bad news.
He performed an unconscious commentary on his boss’s words, as if Marcel Marceau had wandered in to get away from that high wind he was always battling against. Mr Osborne fought back. This year the largest bond investor in the world had described UK bonds as “a no-go area”. “We were sitting on a bed of nitroglycerin!” he went on. The credit rating agencies had put the UK on “negative watch”. We were being lumped in with Portugal, Ireland and Greece! “It was an incredibly serious situation for this country,” he said.
Furrows appeared in Mr Tyrie’s furrows. He became so dry that one feared that if the sun came out his entire body might crumble into a yellow pile. “Those remarks,” he said, “sound more to me like the language of opposition than of government.” Ouch! The dry dirk slid in. Labour members, bullying rather than dry, elicited the information that Mr Osborne claims child benefit (“of course, I have two children!”) And – intriguing fact – of six leading industrial countries, including the US, Japan, France and Germany, we have the lowest national debt of all. Yippee! But apparently we’re catching up fast.
So there you go. I think that’s great. If you want the straight news report of the meeting – go here. And just scroll down if you’d like some background on the characters mentioned in the piece:
George Osborne is No.2 in the British government (yes, I know there’s a deputy prime minister, but let’s be realistic) – he’s the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the money man, from a wealthy aristocratic family.
Andrew Tyrie, MP, chairman of the Treasury select committee. There are various committees of elected members of parliament which are supposed act independently of government, oversee the work of a particular department, and report back to the wider body of MPs. The Treasury committee exists to hold the government to account on matters financial. Tyrie is from the same (Conservative) party as the George Osborne, but has a decent reputation for challenging whoever comes before him. (Not to be confused with moustachioed Ulster loyalist paramilitary leader Andy Tyrie.)
WH Auden – Anglo-American poet. Wrote Funeral Blues – you know, “Stop all the clocks…” – the poem at the funeral in Four Weddings And A Funeral. Famously rumpled and wrinkled.
Sir Nicholas Macpherson – Permanent secretary to the Treasury. High ranking civil servant, not a politician – part of the permanent apparatus of ruling which retains power whichever party is in office. (Not pictured.)
Marcel Marceau – famous mime, actor, clown and member of the French Resistance. (I like to think of him halting German mobile patrols by carrying imaginary sheets of glass across Ardeche country lanes.)
Anne Widdecombe – Notoriously stern Conservative MP, famously virginal and remembered unfondly for her insistence that female prisoners be handcuffed while giving birth in hospital. Recently somewhat rehabilitated by her appearance on the TV show Strictly Come Dancing. (At the time of writing she’s still has not been eliminated. I wouldn’t put money on her going all the way though.)