World News

07.03.14

Why 7 Times 8 Tripped Up the UK Chancellor

George Osborne, Britain’s top finance minister, declined to answer an easy math question from a 7-year-old. Then there was his missing hamster. Suddenly, it was like an episode of ‘Veep.’

Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer knew that his questioners were not just children, but a group of young people from First News, the U.K.’s award-winning national newspaper for 7- to 14-year-olds.

The “Hotseat” interview panel had been assembled by Sky News. There was potential danger everywhere.

There were questions about spending priorities, and where Britain turned when it fell into debt.

And then there was (future Pulitzer winner) Samuel Raddings, 7, who, in a sweet, broken voice more befitting of an extra from Oliver!, said to the chancellor, “Are you good at maths?”

There are moments in politics, on both sides of the Atlantic, where you can see flickering across the politician’s face, the recognition that they are approaching a potential media landmine. They have watched Westminster satire The Thick of It, and Veep, its HBO Washington-set cousin.

It feels like an innocuous moment, it should be an innocuous moment, but such moments are like serrated precipices. The politician must remain composed, but step the hell away before…

All of that flitted across the chancellor’s face. Raddings’ question was probably leading to a math-related question, and he’s the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in charge of the U.K.’s finances. He has to get this right, or every time he makes a budget forecast or talks about tax percentages, he is going to be screwed. There’ll play this moment over and over again. Oh God, the memes, the Tumblr, the GIFs, the, eugh…

Osborne’s smile was tighter than a double-knotted shoelace.

“Well, I did maths at school,” he replied as evenly as possible. “So, erm, I have been tested at school.” He blathered a bit about how the country spends its money on schools, hospitals, and the police service.

Raddings’ expression throughout was, “Like, whatever.” Then he unleashed his arrow from its quiver.

“What’s 7 times 8?”

“I’m not going to get into a whole string of…” blustered Osborne. “I’ve made it a rule in life not to answer a load of maths questions,” he added, the smile one of uncorked terror.

Do you know what the answer is, the Sky presenter asked the 7-year-old.

“56,” said Raddings, with an expression that read: “And the fuss about that was?”

The presenter’s subsequent attempt to save the chancellor’s blushes was as pathetic as his dance around answering the question. “Well done. Someone had a bit of time to prep that one, didn’t they?” she said to Raddings. Hmm. It wasn’t like he was reciting the theory of relativity.

The chancellor seemed what can only be described as nervously-at-ease throughout the encounter with the six children. He told them he had bought a Scalextric car set with his pocket money when he was younger.

He owned up to not knowing rappers Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, but said he listened to Pharrell Williams: “I love his songs, they’re kind of uplifting.”

Osborne was asked if he had any professional regrets, and he said he “wished” the government had done more to fix some of the U.K.’s economic problems.

Osborne, who told the young people his pay was £134,00 (around $230,000) a year, said it was good that politicians expressed themselves volubly in the House of Commons, although his questioner Jessica Trueman eloquently, and bluntly, said children watching it might think that shouting is the best way to get their points across.

Asked about funding public libraries, Osborne put the onus of responsibility on local councils. He waffled about the need for “real role models” when tackled about the lack of female MPs.

An easy question beckoned at the end. What did he like to do with his children? Osborne said he was his 11-year-old daughter’s assistant in the kitchen, and he watched movies with his 13-year-old son. He also took the family’s dog out into the back garden at 10 Downing Street early every day for its morning poop. He laughed at that image, and so did the children.

The First News team had asked him to bring an exclusive story for them. He had, but this was not to be about financial policy, or a sudden announcement of a tax hike for the wealthy. Instead, the chancellor told the story about the family’s hamster escaping from its cage in the top-floor apartment they live in at 10 Downing Street.

They were “terrified” it would somehow appear in press conferences with the prime minister or maybe President Obama on his next visit.

Again, the story was supposed to be charming. But again, the specters of The Thick of It and Veep were raised. One could see the aides whispering at that time, “We have to find that fucking hamster before the press finds out. What if it dies? The hamster cannot die.”

These aides know the most infamous Downing Street pet scandal of yore: the rumors of banishment and possibly murder raised over Humphrey, the Number 10 cat rumored to have been detested by Cherie Blair when she lived there when Tony Blair was prime minister.

The cat was eventually photographed at a secret location to prove it was still alive and had not been killed under sinister circumstances. Humphrey passed away in 2006.

As it was, the Osborne’s family cat found their hamster hiding in an “electricity box” in the basement. It was now safely back in its cage, although the chancellor sometimes let it play in the bath, he said. Not good enough. We want hamster-alive-in-bath pictures now, Mr. Osborne.