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By Mark Wallace
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John_LilburneWhen Freeborn John Lilburne, the Leveller, appeared before the Star Chamber in 1637, he refused to do as they asked. He would not take the oath or answer questions, and as a result he was fined £500, whipped, humiliated in a pillory and thrown in jail.

Given that history, it is not hard to see why George Osborne has chosen to refound the Star Chamber to deal with those in the Cabinet who are refusing to sign up to the cuts needed for his spending review. A number of ministers must be hoping the pillory, at least, has been decommissioned since Lilburne's day.

The psychology is simple. Instead of being pelted by the London mob, any modern day John Lilburnes who won't play along are set to face humiliation in front of their peers. Eric Pickles, Danny Alexander and Oliver Letwin will be sat alongside the Chancellor flinging the metaphorical rotten turnips.

But the politics is rather more complex than it appears.


The precise positions of several of the National Union of Ministers representatives who have yet to settle their budgets are not known – most notably that of Theresa May at the Home Office. It is Philip Hammond who is widely touted as posing the most difficulty.

Previously viewed as a quiet, competent sort, the Defence Secretary has proved his competence beyond doubt – but torn off the quiet label. In the last few weeks alone, he has stuck his neck out on same sex marriage and followed Michael Gove into public mulling of whether Britain might be right to leave the EU. Add that to his outspokenness over Lords Reform, and his neck has emerged far enough that, in Lilburne's day, it might have been cut off. Judging from some of the (anonymous) rhetoric coming out of Number 10, there's an outside chance that could still happen.

The general narrative is that his position, that welfare should take more cuts to protect defence, puts him at loggerheads with George Osborne and many of his colleagues. But look beneath the surface and that isn't necessarily the case.

As has happened so often with the Coalition, events are being assessed as though this was a normal government, in which the Chancellor has full control of which departments cut what. Osborne would very much like to have such power, but he doesn't. Thanks to the Quad system, the Liberal Democrats are able to veto cuts they don't like.

And they do so – in this instance, they have rejected the idea of further cuts at DWP. Osborne, and even IDS himself, are in favour of finding more savings from the welfare budget in order to reduce the burden elsewhere. In short, this is a very odd Star Chamber – the Chancellor will be sitting in judgement over Philip Hammond, even though the basic principles of their personal spending preferences are pretty close together.

So Hammond's rebellion against the Treasury's authority is far less of a rebellion than it first appears, or at least it may be a rebellion against our coalition partners rather than the Chancellor. By the same token, Nick Clegg is likely to take it far more personally than most assume, as it is a direct, public snub to his insistence on protecting DWP spending from further cuts.

This is yet another wobble in the wheels of the coalition. To maintain the authority of the Quad, Osborne will have to bring Hammond before the Star Chamber if he continues to dig his heels in. But as the judge's personal position is not so far from that of the accused, his punishment may be somewhat less severe than that faced by Freeborn John.

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