The announcement that the proposed 3p petrol tax increase was not to go ahead should have been a winner for the beleaguered Chancellor George Osborne. With a flat-lining economy, a piece of good news designed to show how the Conservative party were in touch with the concerns of ordinary working people would surely provide some cheer? Instead it will be remembered for a spectacular piece of car crash television.
The interview of Chloe Smith, a junior Minister at the Treasury, was typical Paxman, a long set up by a reporter then a mixture of world-weary cynicism and dismissal punctuated by closed questions designed to elicit answers with which he can twist the knife further.
Politicians and senior business people are trained extensively for this situation. They are coached (usually by journalists) how to deal with this type of interview, to ignore closed questions and to get over the key messages they’ve prepared in advance and that they need to get over to the public. Few politicians get the better of Paxman but most escape with their dignity intact.
By any measure this was a savaging. Each nervous pause, the large gulps of water and the betrayal of her prepared words by her voice and body language would have normally elicited cheers and derision from the Left. Yet the sight of a Conservative minister being humiliated provoked a wave of sympathy from politicians of all persuasions and members of the public.
What we recognised in Ms Smith’s nightmare is that universal moment when you are dropped completely and utterly in the s*** by your boss and they are nowhere to be seen.
This was no ordinary interview. For what we recognised in Ms Smith’s nightmare is that universal moment when you are dropped completely and utterly in the s*** by your boss and they are nowhere to be seen.
Many of us are forced to defend decisions or policies that we aren’t involved in or don’t agree with. From call centre workers trying to explain why loyal customers are charged more than new customers to middle managers forced to defend job cuts when departments are already overloaded with work, defending decisions taken higher up the chain of command is part of modern day life.
But what really causes damage is being undermined, when you’re supposed to be part of the team making a decision and you find out about it after the event yet still have to defend it. When your credibility with your colleagues and, in Ms Smith’s case, the media is completely destroyed in a few short hours whilst your boss stays out of sight until the flack dies down. When you are hung out to dry.
George Osborne could have saved her. Earlier in the evening, she had struggled on Channel 4 News and yet still she was fed to the Newsnight lions. Rather than admit that he had made a decision on the hoof, he left an inexperienced junior to face the press. She could say nothing without lying or undermining her boss and, in toeing the party line and taking one for the team, Ms Smith took a battering from which her own career may never recover.
In hiding away from the media, George Osborne may have avoided a difficult evening but the humiliation of one of his staff on national TV has put himself firmly in the spotlight both personally and politically. The U-turn on fuel tax has done nothing to dispel the opinion amongst many that he is there, not for his intellect and ability to manage the economy, but for his personal connections.
Opinions may differ on his ability to manage the economy but dropping one of your staff right in it does little for the assertion that ‘we’re all in this together.’
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