Naturally, the leader’s speech is the most important part of the Labour conference, but the general feeling behind the scenes is that things are going pretty well. Sunday was a bit of a messy day, although strategists think the childcare announcements are still an overall win. But yesterday went extremely well – good speeches from Ed Balls and Chuka Umunna and only a little bit of chuntering from Len McCluskey. And the reason a lot of MPs feel it went particularly well is that the Tories played into their hands on Ed Balls’ announcement on the OBR.
The Shadow Chancellor wasn’t just trying to improve trust in politics, as he claimed yesterday, by calling for the OBR to audit opposition parties’ manifestos. He was also setting up a test for the Tories. Would they accept his offer to submit his plans to scrutiny? Naturally, the Tories said it would be a terrible idea. Which was exactly what Labour wanted because it makes them appear to be playing party politics.
I was at a fringe meeting with Chuka Umunna last night, and he laid into the Conservatives’ dismissal of the OBR plan with as much righteous indignation as he could muster.
‘It’s an eminently sensible move, Robert Chote who is the head of the OBR floated the idea and seems reasonably amenable to it, Paul Johnson, the head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, indicated that he thought it was a reasonably good idea and my old Treasury Select Committee colleague the Conservative Andrew Tyrie thinks this is a very good idea.
‘I think the government’s response to the announcement today illustrates a level of pettiness and kind of juvenile behaviour that I thought was frankly beyond them. For them not to even entertain this idea and immediately dismiss it is thoroughly retrograde in my view and ridiculously party political. And my understanding is if I’m right on this is that there are quite a number of fiscal councils around the world.. that do this for oppositions, and I think that there is a public national interest in doing this and in seeking to stand in the way of it, I just think the illustrates the problem with our political system which is too adversarial, too Punch-and Judy.’
He added: ‘What kind of country are we living in? I mean, it’s crazy, isn’t it?’
This is obviously amusingly melodramatic, but Umunna’s comments illustrate the problem with the Tories’ response. They have done exactly what Labour hoped, and Labour can now deploy all the righteous indignation they’d hoped they could. It would have been a better masterstroke to say ‘yeah, sure, let’s audit your manifesto then’ to take the wind out of the opposition’s sails.
That was certainly what everyone thought last night. ‘They did exactly what we were hoping,’ said one strategist happily.