As expected, there was one topic which dominated Treasury Questions today and that was the EU. The Chancellor did his best to hold his nerve as he faced strong opposition — in the shape of MPs in his own party.
It’s a rare occasion when George Osborne is able to find more support in the Labour benches than his own but that’s what happened today as Tory MP after Tory MP went into attack mode over the government’s handling of the EU referendum. Andrew Tyrie, the chair of the Treasury Committee, gave the criticisms an air of authority as he kicked things off by calling Osborne out on the use of Article 50 — which spells two years of negotiations after an initial no vote under the Lisbon treaty, which covers a country leaving the EU.
He asked why the government doesn’t give more time between a no vote and Article 50 to see the extent to which good faith can be established with the countries of the European union, adding that it was ‘illogical’ to restrict ourselves:
Osborne snapped back that it was not ‘illogical’ as the only mechanism for leaving the EU is to trigger Article 50 — he then managed to take a pop at Boris Johnson’s notion of two referendums:
‘People need to be aware there aren’t going to be two referendums. This is decision day on the 23 June and people need to choose and I think voting to remain in the EU is the best outcome for our economic and national security.’
Not letting up, Steve Baker, the Tory MP leading Conservatives for Britain, then went on the offensive. He accused Osborne of enlisting ‘Project Fear’ by ‘asking’ the G20 finance ministers to put out a statement warning that Brexit would shock the world economy:
‘Mr Speaker isn’t it extraordinary that the Chancellor asked G20 to make that statement, and isn’t it the case that he did in fact make the request to them in order that they tee up this element of Project Fear?’
Osborne was quick to slap him down, describing Baker’s claims as ‘fanciful’.
Jacob Rees Mogg followed — asking Osborne why David Cameron had ever suggested Britain could leave the EU if it was really the ‘apocalyptic’ decision that Osborne suggests. Nigel Evans attempted to ask Osborne what he would do to promote countries to take business to Britain in the event of a Leave vote. However, Osborne avoided the question by talking up the need to stay — leaving an agitated Evans muttering ‘I didn’t ask that’. Even Bercow seemed bored of Osborne’s evasiveness. He reprimanded Osborne for not answering the question.
A knight in shining armour finally came to Osborne’s aid in the guise of Labour’s Chris Leslie who helped the Chancellor out by asking a question about tax avoidance being strengthened by EU membership. When it was the SNP’s Stewart Hosie’s time to speak, he urged Osborne and Cameron to make a positive case for staying in, at which point Osborne claimed he was — and as part of this ‘won’t speak ill of a Conservative’.
Struggling to stick to his own pledge, it was probably a welcome distraction when it was John McDonnell’s turn to speak. The shadow Chancellor attacked Osborne over his fiscal charter — but failed to ask a question:
‘In the debates at the time of the charter, I and many others warned the chancellor of the potential impact of global adverse headwinds. The Chancellor responded by boasting — and I quote — of having an economic plan that actually produces better results than were forecast.
Since then we’ve seen business investment fall his export target recede into the distance, trade deficit widen, manufacturing and construction enter recession, the productivity gap the biggest it’s been for a generation — and last week the Chancellor, to crown it all, tells us our economy is smaller than we thought.’
With no question to answer, Greg Hands managed to fob McDonnell off by simply stating that the forecasts still show the UK is performing ‘extremely well’. Labour’s Seema Malhotra didn’t have much more luck when she pressed Osborne on housing — accusing the Chancellor of a record of failure. He simply replied by laying into Labour over yesterday’s news that Syriza’s Yanis Varoufakis will be advising the party:
‘What people need above all as homeowners is economic security. The fact that the Labour party is now getting it’s advice from Yanis Varoufakis and the revolutionary Marxist broadcaster Paul Mason does not suggest to me that they’ve got an answer to economic security. Presumably they chose those two because Chairman Mao was dead and Mickey Mouse was busy.’
While it was a predictable insult, it shows that Labour need to improve their operations. Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to announce that Varoufakis would be advising Labour the day before Treasury questions meant Osborne had an easy line of attack to use to undermine the shadow Chancellor on the economy. The Eurosceptic opposition Osborne faced from his own party only highlights how impotent the opposition party are becoming. Osborne was far more rattled by questions from Tory MPs than anything McDonnell threw his way.