It’s a government minister’s job to speak to the media

Last night Chloe Smith, MP and Treasury Minister, appeared on Newsnight to answer Paxo-questions on George Osborne’s decision to delay the 3p fuel duty rise.  And she didn’t do too well.

‘When were you told of the change of plan?’ asked Paxman.

The answer should have been something like: ‘today’, or: ‘I knew of the Chancellor’s decision earlier today.  It’s something we’ve been considering for several weeks now and the final decision, I think, is right because it will ease the financial burden on motorists just at a time when they need it.’

But she went for the other option and came across all defensive.  She tried to tell Paxman that she was definitely inside the wigwam of important decision making and hadn’t only that second found out about the change of plan as if she was just some insignificant functionary.  But it didn’t really work.

Evasion is like a red rag to Paxman when he’s imagining himself a bull, and he went for her, deploying that well-tried tactic of asking the same question over and over.  And things didn’t improve much after that, and by the end she was coming across as one of two things depending on the viewers’ mood or prejudice: evasive or incompetent, neither of which looks good on a government minister.

But these things happen, and it is something else I find more interesting.  All too often, it is the fallout from a political decision and the subsequent bickering that becomes the real story.  The substance, it seems, is not important.  And so it was today.

Among others, Nadine Dorries MP contributed to the debate in a not entirely helpful way (she really doesn’t seem to rate Osborne or Cameron).  ‘If Osborne sent Chloe on re scrapping 3p,’ she tweeted, ‘he is a coward as well as arrogant.’

Now, this may or may not be the case, but it doesn’t seem like something an MP should say about her own side, even if they think it.  It just comes across as petulant, and I’m sure she is worth more than that.  Daniel Knowles has a suggestion why she might not be too keen on the current Conservative leadership.  I wouldn’t know.

But it’s also worth noting that, according to the plan, the 3p tax is not being scrapped, only delayed.  And Chloe Smith is a minister, in the Treasury, and it quite clearly says on the Cabinet Office website that she: ‘Leads on: Environmental issues including taxation of transport.’  But perhaps what this really means is that the 3p fuel duty has nothing to do with ‘taxation of transport’ after all.

It may well have been preferable for Osborne to face Paxman on this occasion, but it’s stretching it a little to conclude he is a ‘coward’ and was being unfair to one of his ministers.  Chloe Smith is a grown up, a member of parliament no less.  Are MPs to be so molly-coddled?  It’s her job to talk to the media.

Yet I can’t say the government has handled this (and some of those other issues) particularly well.  It’s getting a bit of a reputation for incompetence, and it doesn’t help when other ministers, notably the Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, defend the tax rise while under the impression it’s government policy, only to have it reversed without their knowledge.

This is one of the reasons we are supposed to have Cabinet government.  You know.  Discuss the issue, make a decision and brief accordingly.  Perhaps the PM should look at his procedures again and include the whole of government a little more in decision-making.  That way the government might come across as being a little more joined up and his ministers might be better placed to face interviews with convincing arguments for policy decisions.

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