Letter from Westminster 01.05.09

Budget day has always been some­thing of an occasion in the House of Commons. The House is always full and the atmosphere can be electric. Last week, however, was slightly different.

First of all anyone who listened to the Today Programme on Radio Four or who read the Sunday news­papers (most MPs) already knew the bulk of what was going to be in the speech. Its contents had been so comprehensively leaked that there were going to be few surprises. This, sadly, is just another example of the way in which this government seeks to sideline and marginalise the House of Commons.

The Home Office suffers leaks and a Conservative front bench spokes­man has his office raided and the Home Secretary condemns the civil servant responsible, saying that this is a practice that threatens the business of government itself. Come the budget and the Treasury seems to be leaking like a sieve but no complaint is made. Obviously not all leaks are equal!

The speech itself lacked a lot of the theatre of years gone by. That is just Alistair Darling’s style. He is not a flamboyant performer and has never claimed to be. His political skill is in being the safe pair of hands who can close controversial subjects down. Even his dead pan delivery, however, could not soften the impact of some of the figures that were given to the House of Commons and there were genuine and audible gasps on both sides as he revised his estimates of the extent of borrowing and the contraction of the economy. If we were ever in any doubt about the seriousness of the situation facing our economy then last Wed­nesday removed that doubt. On the government’s own estimates (if they are more accurate than the last ones!) then it will be almost 10 years before we are truly out of the woods.

There is no doubt that this reces­sion is of a different nature and order from those we have known pre­viously, not least because of the virtual collapse of the banking sys­tem. As my colleague Vince Cable put it in the debate the government’s balance sheet is now in such a parlous state that if it were to wind up all its business and seek someone else to take it on then even allowing for the value of all its assets and its capital then rather than selling for a price they would need to pay someone to take it all away.

It was Oscar Wilde who once spoke about knowing the value of everything and the price of nothing. Having dealt last week with the prices, the House of Commons this week turned its mind to the question of value when it debated the right of retired Gurkha soldiers to live in Britain. I confess that I have never understood the government’s rea­sons for denying this. If someone is allowed to die for this country then surely they should be allowed to live in it. For once the whips were put in their box. Sometimes, just some­times, the system works.

Alistair Carmichael MP


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