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Wednesday, June 27, 2012 

"Jeremy, I don't think many things are certain in this world."

There are two explanations for Chloe Smith's successive humiliations on various news programmes last night. First is that politics isn't really like The Thick of It after all, where following one disastrous performance the person responsible will be drilled until they are properly prepared for anything about to be thrown at them, with a lot of virtuoso swearing involved. Second is that this government is now so dysfunctional, with subjects as diverse as education reform apparently not being run past the prime minister before being leaked to the media, on this occasion the cabinet not even informed of a change that was to be made just a few hours later, that they don't care whether the junior minister tasked with defending the shambles got slaughtered.

No prizes for those who decide the latter is more likely. Indeed, if we're to believe Paul Waugh, then Conservative Central Office logged the Smith interview as a "Slight Govt win; Smith strong", apparently at the same time as Twitter (spit) was lighting up with comment on the horror of it all. 24 hours later and the encounter between Smith and Paxman has been viewed on YouTube over 70,000 times, which for a political interview that doesn't include a fight or something scatological occurring is fairly astonishing. Watching it live last night I thought I was going to die; revisiting it now it's still funny in places, but more noteworthy for just how total Smith's ineptitude is. She started her tour of the various news studios at Radio 4, moved onto Channel 4 where she was partially saved by the time constraint and Krishnan Guru-Murphy toying with her, before Paxman finally moved in for the kill. In one of those wonderful examples of life imitating satire, her performance so resembles that of Ben Swain in TTOI when faced with Paxman (Paxman's pieces for the show were incidentally cut from his filleting of a Labour junior minister) that it was wonder that she didn't start repeatedly blinking. "Like a lion raping a sheep but in a bad way", or like watching a kitten get gassed? Either pretty much sums it up.

Osborne, we're told, was spending his evening chillaxing entertaining a group of Tory MPs in Number 11, and after all, as Smith said, he did announce the change to parliament, even if prior to that only he and David Cameron knew what he was going to announce yesterday afternoon. Whereas before Danny Alexander was the minister tasked with defending the indefensible, with David Gauke usually available if Alexander was off trying to look ever more like a Muppet, apparently no one other than Smith could be found. This wouldn't have mattered if Smith had decided to answer a straight question with a straight answer: she doesn't need "PR gurus" after the event delivering a whole spiel of bullshit telling her what she should have said, all she needed to do was point out that as a very junior Treasury minister not every decision goes through her, therefore it's not surprising she didn't know until yesterday, and that they don't know at this precise moment where the money will come from exactly but will come back and say where in due course. That might not have satisfied Paxo, but it would have been a start.

Instead, as so many politicians believe, she thought she could play Paxman at his own game, and when that failed, she panicked (nice question; not many things are certain in this world; the figure is evolving somewhat; it is indeed; quite interesting in themselves; of interest perhaps in a different conversation). Which is fair enough. If I was faced with Paxman in almost any circumstances I suspect I'd make Smith look good; the point is though that if you're in government, have decided on a policy u-turn because the opposition is going to force a vote on it, and are either "unavailable" or too cowardly to come out and explain why yourself, you really ought to ensure that you're not making things even worse by sending out someone so ill-prepared to defend it that it's the only thing everyone within the political word is talking about the next day.

The actual politics involved in not raising fuel duty ought to be fairly straightforward. It isn't a very good idea to raise taxes on everyone who drives when the economy is up shit creek, to misquote Mervyn King, and while it's not going to put any money directly back in people's pockets it does sort of count as a small stimulus as long as there is money from underspend available to plug the gap. It's when you fail to even give an idea of where the money's going to be found to pay for it, giving the impression it's going to mean more cuts, as it well might, that it negates any advantage it could have given. It's a policy only slightly less lamentable than the one Osborne used before, when he surprised the energy industry by imposing a windfall tax to pay for a penny reduction in fuel duty. Both were drawn up on the back of a fag packet, and both have gone up in smoke.

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