John McDonnell has tried to explain why he U-turned on the fiscal charter this afternoon, saying that he has only ‘changed my mind on the parliamentary tactics’, not the principles of the matter. He told Sky News:
‘I have changed my mind, but I haven’t changed my mind on the principles of what the charter is standing for which is we need to tackle the deficit and we will tackle the deficit. Labour will tackle the deficit – we are not deficit deniers, I haven’t changed my mind on that.
‘But I have changed my mind on the parliamentary tactics. Originally what I said to people was look that charter is a political stunt, it’s a political trap by George Osborne, it is virtually meaningless – he ignores it himself time and time again, he never meets his targets. So this is just a stunt and let’s ridicule it in the debate and vote for it because it’s a meaningless vote.’
Other Labour MPs are offering a slightly less glossy interpretation of why the Shadow Chancellor has U-turned, which is that he is ‘totally incompetent’.
A number of moderate Labour MPs have decided that they will rebel for the first time on the vote, choosing to abstain rather than oppose. The party is sticking to its three line whip on the issue, which in itself is rather amusing given Jeremy Corbyn always regarded a three-line whip as a guideline, not a command. One MP remarks that ‘the party is unwhippable’ now.
But the whips haven’t yet spoken to a large number of Labour MPs who are still trying to decide what to do about the issue. Many of them need to decide whether disobeying the leader now is a good idea in order to set out a position for the post-Corbyn era. A rebellion in the Commons might undermine Corbyn, but it has long been known that he doesn’t have the support of his own MPs and that many of them are simply respecting that huge mandate of his.
Reports that Corbyn might not have known that McDonnell would change his mind sound ludicrous until you consider that while the pair have worked closely for years, Corbyn has always happily given McDonnell free reign on economic policy because he is so personally interested in foreign policy. This might have worked well when the two were backbenchers. But the row of the past few days has shown that shooting straight from the backbenches to the top of a party is as risky as everyone thought it was, as you cannot rely on experience accrued while climbing the ladder.
What is more damaging for the Labour leader is that the chopping and changing of position has allowed Nicola Sturgeon to claim that Labour has bowed ‘to SNP pressure on austerity charter’, which totally undermines any attempt to help the party in Scotland as it is now very easy for the SNP to paint Labour as weak and scared.
But anyone who thinks that the incompetent handling of the fiscal charter makes Corbyn less likely to survive ignores the fact that the fundamentals haven’t changed at all. At the start of this week Labour was led by someone who had not proved their competence in any frontbench role before taking the helm, who didn’t command the support of their MPs, but who had a huge mandate in the Labour membership. None of that has changed, though it may have been made a little clearer by this row. But until that final fundamental point – about Corbyn’s support in the Labour membership – changes, his MPs can rebel as much as they want. They’re not the ones with the power any more.