Aside from Ed Balls’ attack on George Osborne for going ‘on the piste’ in Davos, Treasury question time in the Commons today was interesting not for what Labour did or didn’t have to say, but for some of the pushes from the Tory backbench on helping those on low incomes. Sometimes it’s the pattern of the questions that matters more than the individual answers.
Many of the questions were pitches for the Budget, which also gave ministers the opportunity to not really answer them. Robert Halfon asked about reintroducing the 10p income tax rate, to which Greg Clark said he noted the MP’s bid for the Budget, adding:
‘But he will know that we have taken people out of tax, which has been important in restoring incentives and the rewards people have for going back to work.’
Treasury Select Committee chair Andrew Tyrie also asked a cost of living question: on fuel duty. He said:
‘The recent cancellation of the rise in fuel duty in the autumn statement was very welcome news for all our constituents, and it will help with jobs. Our constituents now need greater certainty about future rises, so will the Chancellor accept the Treasury Committee’s recommendation, published today, that he should use the Budget to set out a clear medium-term strategy for fuel duty?’
Osborne’s answer was simply to state the improvements the coalition had made on Labour’s fuel duty policy, and to refer to the money he had garnered last night from the Swiss government as a demonstration that the government was taking the recommendations of Tyrie’s committee seriously.
Similarly Henry Smith urged Danny Alexander to ‘be bold and go further’ on income tax cuts as part of his question on what the Treasury is doing to reduce the cost of living. What’s clear is that backbenchers are firstly keen to trumpet the government’s achievements so far on tax cuts, but are also concerned about the continuing effect of the cost of living on their party’s standing in the polls. They are aware that as much as GDP figures might raise or dampen spirits in Westminster, so long as their constituents feel under pressure from high fuel and food prices, they might not feel as though the government is making much of a difference to them. For them, this needs to be a cost of living budget.
P.S. Spare a thought for poor Duncan Hames, who also had a question on the order paper, but wasn’t able to ask it. As the session wore on, the Lib Dem MP leapt up to catch the Speaker’s eye with such enthusiasm he risked toppling over onto the bench in front. Sadly, even though he was also pulling a most excellent Keen Face with raised eyebrows and hopeful smile when trying to catch Bercow’s eye, his wish was never granted. For the record, he wanted to ask about the second wave of city deals.