Sketch: Dazed and bewildered by some Labour has-beens

Never will anyone so diffident go so far
Never will anyone so diffident go so far

Diffident and abashed, Danny Alexander looked like a six-foot schoolboy who has forgotten his homework as he faced the despatch box for the first time.

By Alex Stevenson

Britain's new chief secretary to the Treasury is a talented and clever individual. He was thought to be well-deserving of the Scottish secretary post, but the nation's eyebrows were raised when he was elevated to chief secretary. His quavering manner as he stood up in the Commons will not have put off his critics.

After the easy bit - most human beings reach the required intellect to deliver a Commons statement by their seventh or eighth birthday - came a challenging to-and-fro of quickfire questions from jittery MPs.

Tom Watson suggested the move had brought the Trident nuclear deterrent into question. Had this not been mentioned because Alexander "doesn't know what he's doing or because he's ashamed?"

Derek Twigg demanded to see the letters of direction demonstrating these spending projects. "Aha!" yelled the opposition as Alexander failed to provide them.

Denis MacShane, cross with the cancellation of the Sheffield Forgemasters loan, told Alexander he would never be welcome in Sheffield again. The chief secretary, a Highlands MP, flashed a quick look as if this was a price worth paying.

The only section of society Alexander seems self-confident enough to deal with derisively are new Lib Dem MPs. One of them, Duncan Hames, wanted to know whether similar "restraints" on spending commitments would be introduced in the run-up to the next election. He got short shrift from Alexander, who told him he had better things to do.

All the while the Labour frontbench heckled and howled derisively, doing their level best to put the newcomer off. Byrne alternated his trademark quizzical sideways look with quizzical sideways remarks. A question about luxury sofas brought the improbable response, rarely heard in Commons debates: "How many sofas are you going to cut?"

The exception to the bullying squad was former health secretary Andy Burnham. His was a dazed form of mortification, as if he had been thwacked on the head by ex-immigration minister Phil Woolas sitting behind. Less stunned expressions have been seen on the faces of those who have discovered their wife is cheating on them. He did not quite cry, for Burnham is a brave little soldier, but it was clear the loss of his precious final projects - including the cancellation of North Tees and Hartlepool hospital - was being felt very deeply.

Liam Byrne has a lot of catching-up to do, having written his way into the history books with his now-infamous "there's no money left" note. He seemed as lackadaisical as all around him lost their heads. But he more than made up for it with his tirade against the new coalition. He was smug as he attacked Alexander by quoting George Bernard Shaw: "To succeed in politics, it is often necessary to rise above your principles." He was snide as he added: "few have risen so fast and now so fast from theirs." And he was damning as he pictured the "aghast" Liberal Democrats up and down the land. How will the sandal-wearers cope when they discover the Stonehenge Visitors' Centre will now require private funding? If this doesn't bring down the coalition, nothing will.


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