By Matthew Barrett
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We reported on the policy content of the Chancellor's Autumn Statement on Tuesday. As well as the content of the Statement, it's worth noting the contributions from Conservative backbenchers in the Commons session that followed it. The Chancellor answered 96 questions in total, so it allowed a large window of opportunity for backbenchers to raise questions or points sceptical of the government's economic agenda – backbenchers could have urged the Chancellor to pursue fiscal consolidation more vigorously, or pressed for a more pro-growth direction, and so on.
However, backbench contributions were overwhelmingly positive. There were, generally, two kinds of question from Tory backbenchers. The first would be positive about measures announced in the Autumn Statement. For example:
"Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the welcome opportunity for private pension funds to invest in infrastructure will also give a good return for those pension funds by unlocking the growth that can come from such infrastructure, particularly in rural areas such as East Anglia?"
The second variety of question would criticise Labour. For example:
"Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): I am confused and am hoping that the Chancellor can help me to sort something out. On page 82 of its document, the OBR states that it has cut its forecast for European growth to 0.5%. On another page, it states that it has cut the British forecast to 0.7%. Under the shadow Chancellor’s quack-onomics theory, interest rates should therefore be higher in Britain than in the eurozone, but they are not. Can the Chancellor explain why?"
The first backbencher to be called to speak was Andrew Tyrie, the Chairman of the Treasury Select Committee – who attacked the government's growth strategy during this year's party conference. Instead of attacking the Chancellor's statement, he said:
"Mr Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): The whole country, I think, will welcome the supply-side measures announced today, which are an essential counterpart to the deficit reduction plan."
The only question that might be deemed not-100%-on-message on European matters was accompanied by an attack on Labour's record – so it wasn't outright anti-Coalition:
"Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): I know that the Chancellor will ignore the pleas of the Labour party, given that it more than doubled the national debt when it was in power, but will he revisit the massive net increases in our contribution to the EU that will come through over the next seven years? They will amount to something like £20 billion, which would fund a 5p to 6p cut in small business corporation tax."
The second question suggesting a policy difference came from Mark Lancaster, who asked about HS2. As with John Baron's question above, it was asked in terms that were generally favourable to the Chancellor:
"Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): Mr Speaker, you, I and many other hon. Members have campaigned long and hard for east-west rail and today’s announcement is tremendous news for Milton Keynes. As the Transport Secretary is in her place, can my right hon. Friend the Chancellor confirm the possibility that we will have east-west rail and, at the junction between east-west and High Speed 2, could there perhaps be a Buckinghamshire Parkway station so that residents of Buckinghamshire could enjoy the benefits of High Speed 2 as well as the pain?
Peter Bone, who has rebelled against the government on a number of occasions, asked the only question that could be seen as hostile – but even he did not attack policy, but the extensive leaking of the Autumn Statement's measures:
"Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I am slightly concerned about whether the health of the shadow Chancellor is in order, as he has spent the past hour muttering to himself. However, may I ask the Chancellor whether he thinks that new Government policy should be announced to Parliament first?
The full debate can be read in Hansard here.
A side-note: during the session, the Chancellor paid tribute to Robert Halfon – who managed to get the Chancellor to cancel the planned January fuel duty increase – as the Parliamentary embodiment of Essex Man:
"Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): I thank the Chancellor for listening to millions of hard-pressed motorists and the Fair Fuel UK campaign and for not raising fuel duty next year. Is he aware that that will save 37,000 Harlow motorists more than £1 million next year? Will he listen to Essex man once again and set up a commission to look at the long-term problems of petrol and diesel price rises and see whether anything more can be done?
Mr Osborne: I should pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend, who has led a dogged campaign on behalf of the people of Harlow and of the whole country to get some relief from the increases in petrol taxes that were planned by the last Labour Government. I am delighted that we have been able to help. I always listen to Essex man, who is represented in the form of my hon. Friend."