Norwich minister gets back to business after Paxman
06:30 29 June 2012
The firebrand leftwing MP Dennis Skinner, also known as the ‘Beast of Bolsover’, has a habit of embarrassing ministers with his preposterously theatrical attacks in the House of Commons.
Yesterday he trained his pointing finger firmly at the government frontbench on which sat the member for Norwich North, Chloe Smith, making her first Commons outing since ‘the Paxman incident’.
For anyone that did not see it, Tuesday night saw Ms Smith venture on to the BBC Newsnight programme to partake in an interview with Jeremy Paxman.
The subject was George Osborne’s recent decision to scrap the 3p rise in fuel duty that was due to come in this August, and to freeze the tax until the end of the year.
Previously the chancellor had said there was no money to carry out the move, but then out of nowhere earlier this week he announced that £500m had become available due to under-spend in government departments.
The impression that the government has performed a U-turn after coming under pressure from both Labour and its own MPs was inescapable, but nonetheless Ms Smith was sent on to deflect the accusation.
What followed was a tough interview that Ms Smith would most likely want to move on from, a conclusion that could be drawn from the fact that until yesterday she not commented on the affair.
However, the incident also led to attacks on the chancellor himself, who was pilloried for allowing a junior minister to go on a key news programme to explain away a crafty piece of politicking that even Gordon Brown would have been proud of. This is where the Beast of Bolsover came in.
During a Commons statement on an investigation into Barclays the Labour MP suddenly bellowed: “The Chancellor ought to be explaining why he did not turn up at the BBC and face the music with Paxman.”
Thankfully for Osborne, shadow chancellor Ed Balls had not turned up to the debate, concerning misdemeanours committed by Barclays under a banking system which he would have had significant input while in power.
And so, showing a minute amount of contrition perhaps, Mr Osborne said: “It is one thing not to appear on the BBC’s Newsnight, and another not to be in the House of Commons to answer to the public and to Parliament.”
All the while Ms Smith sat straight-faced, with crossed arms and crossed legs, flanked on either side by ministers whose support would no doubt have been welcome two nights earlier.
The Treasury minister was waiting for a debate on the green economy in which she had been tasked by ministerial colleagues to answer for the government. Turnout amongst coalition MPs for the session was relatively good.
One senior, if not cynical, Westminster commentator noted: “It’s an old convention that those MPs who want to get a ministerial job and sniff one may be about to come up, turn out to ‘show their support’ for the embattled minister.”
On this occasion however the good attendance was down to a passion for the subject of the debate, which even eclipsed opposition MPs desire to poke fun at Ms Smith over her run in with the BBC news journalist.
Shadow minister Cathy Jamieson gently alluded to it, suggesting the questioning she would face in the Commons would be “slightly less of a hot-seat than she has been subjected to recently”.
Which only left them all wondering how the economic secretary to the Treasury herself would address the one thing on everyone’s minds; something she had to do in order to allow herself to talk about the subject of the debate without distraction.
“I’m delighted to be back at the despatch box madam deputy speaker discussing a matter of great importance in a civilised and reasonable way,” she said putting an emphasis on the last few words and raising laughter from around the House.
“Indeed I’d be very happy to take interventions considering I’ve had so much extensive experience of that already this week.”
And with that the minister moved on; back to business.