In hindsight, it wasn't the smartest thing a minister could have said. Yesterday, as thousands of job losses were announced, the business secretary was trying to sell a rescue package for small businesses and the prime minister was fending off charges of incompetence over the economy, the business minister, Lady Vadera, was telling a TV news bulletin she had spotted "a few green shoots" of recovery. Within hours she was forced to apologise.
Shriti Vadera, a former merchant banker who is one of the prime minister's closest allies, has been a central figure in the recapitalisation of the banks.
Faced with the storm of criticism, she did a new round of interviews and apologised, saying her comments referred to signs of recovery in the bond market, and insisting her chief job was to secure credit for business. She said: "If it was a remark that was misunderstood, I am sorry."
Speaking on ITN at lunchtime, she had been asked if she saw any green shoots of recovery. She replied: "It is a very uncertain world at the moment, globally. I would not want to be the one predicting it. I am seeing a few green shoots, but it is a little bit early to say how they are going to grow."
Vadera had been a late substitute for the business secretary, Lord Mandelson, who had been ordered by the Speaker to make a statement to parliament on his £20bn lifeline for small and medium sized businesses.
She has been in trouble before, when in an email she referred to Railtrack shareholders as "grannies". Ahead of a government decision to put Railtrack into administration which rendered shares worthless, Vadera wrote: "What can we do with grannies - compensation? eg, travel pass?"
Alan Duncan, the Tories' shadow business secretary, said: "Vadera's comments go to show how out of touch and insensitive Gordon Brown's ministers are. The person who dismissed Railtrack shareholders as 'grannies in blouses' has just advertised her own unsuitability for addressing the difficulties that the victims of Gordon Brown's recession are facing."
The Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, accused her of living in a parallel universe, and described her remarks as a work of fiction. The CBI said there was no sign of a recovery.
Meanwhile, at prime minister's questions, David Cameron challenged Brown to stand by his economic forecast made at the time of the pre-budget report, saying one reason confidence was so low lay in businesses' refusal to trust government forecasts. Cameron said: "Evidence of the depth of this recession is mounting: nearly 10,000 more jobs lost in the past week, 10 more firms going bust compared with a year ago, and the worst survey since records began. The forecast of just seven weeks ago was that the economy would start to grow again at the end of June. Is the prime minister willing to repeat that forecast again today?"
Brown replied that the accuracy of the forecast would depend on the level of international co-operation.
Cameron argued that the reason the recession was going to be worse than the Treasury had predicted was partly due to the failure of the government's VAT cut.
Yesterday, thousands more job losses were announced and employment ministers privately admitted that "customer throughput" in job centre offices had reached record levels last week.
Mandelson avoided endorsing Vadera's remarks and said he believed the UK was "some way from the end of the road" in dealing with the economic fallout from the banking crisis. He said the media were making a bit of a mountain out of a molehill. "She cannot predict. I cannot predict. I do not know how many swallows make a summer, but I also know Shriti ,who works extremely hard for this government."
He dismissed comparisons with Lord Lamont, who spotted green shoots too early, in 1991, saying "What she said today, in response to a point put to her, is a very far cry from a strategic setpiece speech made to the Tory party conference by Norman Lamont all those years ago."
Echoes of Lamont
Norman Lamont elegantly dismissed the Major administration as giving 'the impression of being in office, but not in power', but what haunts him is saying he could 'see the green shoots of economic spring' - an error that was compounded when he confided: 'My wife said she heard me singing in the bath.' As chancellor he wanted to convince the public things were getting better ahead of the 1992 election, but his confidence was to prove disastrously misplaced. Although the Conservatives won the election, within six months sterling had crashed out of the ERM on Black Wednesday. When asked later which he regretted more, the shoots or the bath, he reached for Edith Piaf: 'Je ne regrette rien.' But in the spring of 1993, he found himself on the backbenches.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017