Sketch: Osborne and Johnson skip the pleasantries

Alan Johnson flexes his economic muscles
Alan Johnson flexes his economic muscles

George Osborne and Alan Johnson's first clash saw the pair united in a desire to deprecate the same person - the new shadow chancellor.

By Alex Stevenson

This was the first Treasury questions since the formation of Ed Miliband's first shadow Cabinet, an event dominated by speculation over who would get the economic portfolio. Would we be seeing Ed Balls bashing away at the coalition's cuts, or jibes from Yvette Cooper as smoothly crafted as her nail polish? In the event we got neither.

Johnson is not to be associated with bashing or pedicure-related gloss. He has his own style of charm, deployed to excellent effect in his first outing at the despatch box in the nearly-top job.

The contrast was striking. While Johnson sat slightly slumped in his seat, a veteran of the frontbench, Osborne's deputy Danny Alexander was blinking earnestly. He was fingering a large orange folder marked 'Q2+3' in big black marker pen. It turned out the contents proved extremely useful to Alexander as he answered questions two and three. Johnson, watching the warm-up act, looked positively fox-like as he smiled slyly to himself.

Soon it was time for the main event. Johnson began by asking a predicable question about whether spending cut plans would remain as scheduled as in the emergency Budget. The shadow chancellor is not a great reader. He does not have a light, lively voice. Instead the drone was painfully reminiscent of his Commons statements while in government. Was this all he had to offer?

Osborne did not wait to find out. After the usual courtesies about welcoming his promotion he quickly undid them with a joke. "I did the job for five years. I hope he does it even longer!" How the Tories roared with laughter - Osborne wasn't being polite at all!

Johnson's sly grin reappeared. But he was about to run into trouble as Osborne wrongfooted him with a simple answer to his question. "Yes" doesn't give anyone much to work with.

"Well, er," he began, "the reason I asked is that there was some speculation at the weekend..."

This was not an excellent start. One likes to think senior frontbenchers' homework extends beyond the Sunday newspapers. After reciting through the mechanics of the question again he offered his own Johnson-deprecating humour as a prelude. "In my vast experience in the job..." he began, utterly deadpan.

In an office, or pub, or even the members' tea room, this would not raise more than the slightest flicker of a smile. The Commons chamber has lower standards, affording Johnson a roll of laughter. More sarcasm followed about Chris Huhne's "unfortunate yachting analogy" of being "lashed to the mast". Serious points are always much more effective after humour. It wasn't the Budget which was unavoidable and the deficit which was wrong, as Osborne had suggested. "The deficit was unavoidable and the financial methods and his budget proposals were entirely wrong," he replied.

This took some, but not all, of the wind out of Osborne's sails. He retreated to the big issue of the day, on how to fund higher education, by highlighting differences between Johnson's attitude to a graduate tax and Miliband's. "Is he going to assert his authority on the opposition's tax policy?" Osborne sneered.

It didn't last long. We didn't learn much. But it was a decent enough start. Johnson folded up his notes, raising his bottom off the green benches to slip the piece of paper into his pocket. As he did so he looked up at the Commons room before, sighing happily, folding his arms in the traditional Johnson slump. Being a shadow, he may have been thinking, is so much easier than being the real thing.


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