In the headlines: Autumn Statement special

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George Osborne has battled with a royal baby to make some headlines with his Autumn Statement this week. Steven Perryman charts the Chancellor’s big week through the eyes of the media

Sunday: The Andrew Marr Show

The Chancellor’s week started rather sedately with an appearance on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. With shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, warming Marr up in a rather hesitant interview (a theme that would recur later in the week) the stage was set.

Three days out from the Autumn Statement the Chancellor appeared relaxed and confident in batting away Marr’s attempts to pry the contents of his red briefcase out on air.

The programme concluded with Balls and Osborne sat together – yes, together – on the sofa to discuss The Leveson Report. The show wrapped up with the odd sight of the two financial heavyweights gazing longingly at the singer Rumer, whilst nodding their heads and tapping their feet as she sang with Jools Holland.

The song she was singing? Accentuate the Positive, obviously. The researcher at The Andrew Marr Show really has hit a purple patch with their musical/political guest match-ups, haven’t they?

Who could forget then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, watching PJ Harvey singing Let England Shake just a month before losing the General Election in 2010? Or Vince Cable and Balls foot tapping along to Garland Jeffreys singing Coney Island Winter, a song which includes the line: ‘politicians, kiss my ass’?.

Monday: tax avoiders watch out

The working week took a familiar form with tax avoidance everywhere, stoked by the results of the Public Accounts Committee, which denounced multinational companies who pay little or no tax on their earnings in Britain as ‘immoral’.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in light of the report rumours that US coffee chain Starbucks was re-considering its UK tax arrangements started to circulate. Rather cynically, commentators argued that news of falling profits prompted the u-turn. That can’t possibly be right, as it doesn’t make a profit in the UK, does it? Well, that’s what it told the Public Accounts Committee last month (to much condemnation and enlarged noses).

The bad PR continued for the coffee chain with its employees leaking their new contracts of employment to the press. The contracts feature ‘perks’ such as unpaid lunch breaks and no sick leave. Nice. And new mothers? Well, forget the hamper you’ve been used to, ladies – you’re gonna get a card and Starbucks baby grow and bib instead. Meanwhile, on AAT Comment, AAT’s tax guru Brian Palmer blogged his predictions and expectations for the speech.

Of course, Starbucks and Osborne were swept from Tuesday’s front pages by news that a royal baby is on the way. How the PR team at Starbucks must’ve rejoiced at that news. Perhaps it should send a card and Starbucks baby grow and bib over to Kensington Palace as a thank you?

Tuesday: the day before

Kate was still in hospital. Wills had visited. George was nowhere to be seen. Learning his lines, perhaps?

Wednesday: the day of the Autumn Statement

The big day arrived with the Winter’s first snowfall, underlining the odd name for the speech perfectly. With the only big news royal-side being the arrival of Pips at Kate’s bedside, the news agenda was cleared and ready for George.

The preliminary Prime Minister’s Questions had the air of a festive panto, with guffaws and groans from both sides of the house. Of course, Miliband and Cameron were just a warm-up act for the real show – or shall we call them the two ugly sisters? – Osborne and Balls.

It came as no surprise that tax avoidance figured in the speech, with the Chancellor announcing that any loopholes in the tax system will be closed with immediate effect. Rather than cutting spending to the HMRC, more money will be invested to tackle tax avoidance and evasion. In fact, £77m will be provided to tackle the problem – and 2,500 more tax inspectors will be funded to go after the avoiders and evaders.

It was a move clearly aimed at engaging the zeitgeist of tax avoidance. Some commentators – including The Spectator – argued that the Chancellor’s ‘blitz’ on tax avoidance will do little to compensate for £2bn of cuts. Especially when you consider that squirreled away underneath that headline announcement was news that he is reducing the headline corporation tax rate to 21% in April 2014. Corporation tax – if you needed reminding – is the very tax the whole avoidance furore is about.

Other eye-catching announcements included the expected freeze in fuel duty and a further £235 increase in the personal allowance to £9,440. Some of the more entertaining moments actually came after the Chancellor sat down and Ed Balls stood up. Amid a hesitant and confused response by the shadow Chancellor came some suitably leftfield house-keeping from the Speaker, John Bercow. Perhaps news his wife Sally has re-activated her Twitter account had pushed him over the edge.

In trying to calm the house down, Bercow turned on Daniel Byles MP, advising him to swallow a calming pill, or ‘even take up yoga’.

And finally…Thursday: the sketch writers dream  

Amid the dissection the day after, the papers sketch writers, as usual, had a field day. Here are some of our favourite lines:

The Autumn Statement

‘His speech resembled the Cratchits’ Christmas tree – dead, bare sticks with a few baubles hanging limply down.’ – Simon Hoggart in The Guardian

‘Mr Osborne’s speech was pregnant with statistics, tank traps and assorted other chicanes.’ – Quentin Letts in The Daily Mail

On Osborne’s voice

‘(It) creaked like the floorboards of a haunted house. After 45 minutes of manful struggle with his own vocal cords, he flopped on to the front bench.’– Michael Deacon in The Daily Telegraph

‘(His voice is) the one that makes him sound like Ann Widdecombe. Close your eyes and you hear her: high-pitched, insistent, untroubled by uncertainty.’ – The Guardian

Ed Balls’s response opening boob

‘The Tories were perhaps slightly cheered up by Ed Balls’s response. Mr Balls was not at his best. He began as badly as Osborne had, by declaring “the national deficit is not rising, er, is rising. I’ll start again … the national deficit is, er, er, is rising …’ – The Guardian

‘Edward Miliband was sitting just next to Mr Balls on the Opposition bench. He had been enjoying a sucky sweet. When Ballsy boobed, a reaction of the most marvellous comic incomprehension fell on Mr Miliband’s chops. His neck recoiled a fraction and his eyes went into airbag mode.’  The Daily Mail

‘“In last year’s Budget,” blustered Mr Balls, continuing to wrestle with his script in the manner of a man trying to pitch a tent in a gale,’ The Daily Telegraph

It was quite fitting that the week ended as it had begun – with Osborne and Balls going head to head on BBC News over the Autumn Statement. This time, however, the jovial, sofa-sharing love-in of The Andrew Marr Show was no more.

Where’s Garland Jeffreys when you need him?

Steven Perryman is AAT Comment's former Content Editor.

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