A giggly farce

Oh dear. The Lib Dems' attempt at a bit of Budget differentiation from their Conservative partners this morning turned into a rather giggly farce.

The wheeze was for Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury to deliver a kind of Lib Dem alternative budget - but it got off to a rocky start, with the Speaker noting pointedly that his permission had not been required, but that the statement had to be ministerial, not personal or party, and delivered on behalf of the government….and the privilege of delivering statements should not be abused for purely party purposes.

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Mr Alexander spoke from the Dispatch Box, with the benches behind him, normally inhabited by Conservative MPs, notably bare. His Lib Dem colleagues were mostly sitting below the gangway, some distance away.

Amid rising heckling, he attempted to outline "another way" distinct from that unveiled by George Osborne. Labour front benchers waved the budget red book at him - one was tossed across the table at him. They heckled with increasing venom. Nick Clegg wandered off half way through, to gleeful shouts of "bye" from Labour…

As a piece of parliamentary stage management it was an implosion.

To be sure, the Lib Dems do have a problem attempting to deliver a distinctive message from within a Coalition - especially when the Commons remains a bicycle built for two parties, with procedures which provide little room for third, or fourth or fifth viewpoints.

And, to be sure there was plenty of party politics in Mr Osborne's Budget Statement.

But they bungled their attempt to get their message out. To stage-manage this properly, every Lib Dem MP, not just a random handful, should have been in the chamber. Their leading figures should not have scuttled away at random intervals. And Mr Alexander, who's no Gladstone, to put it gently, should not have been the one delivering the message.

Once Mr Speaker had fired his warning shot, he was holed beneath the waterline.

Maybe in the next Parliament, in some future coalition, a coherent set of rules will be invented to allow the junior partner to register a bit of dissent. But this attempt simply didn't work. On other big economic statements from the Chancellor, Mr Alexander followed up with a statement of his own, attempting to give his party ownership of some of the goodies dispensed - what was different this time was that, from within the government, he was trying to distance himself from Mr Osborne…..

The argument that he supported the budget measures while wishing to take a different fiscal path a few years hence was never going to be easy to put. Whatever his virtues as a minister, Mr Alexander did not have the oratorical wattage to make it.