Preparing for the spending review, George Osborne must have written two speeches: his own, and the one he expected John McDonnell to make. He then clearly went through that Shadow Chancellor speech, ensuring that he’d crossed off every reasonably large line of attack. Tax credits cuts: reversed. More funding for social care and mental health (the latter in the form of a tax rise). No cuts to the police budget. As he announced this last, the Chancellor clearly enjoyed crushing poor Andy Burnham under his heel by pointing out that the Shadow Home Secretary had recommended a 10 per cent cut.
George Osborne was clearly keen to make John McDonnell’s job the most difficult job of any difficult Shadow Chancellor response to an economic statement. But nothing could have prepared him for the response that John McDonnell actually gave.
If you take into account that a response to any economic statement is difficult and even perhaps if you decide to be generous and accept that McDonnell has never done this before, you might have felt that most of the statement was acceptably weak given the circumstances. Labour MPs were stony faced before McDonnell had risen because most of them never wanted to be in the situation where he was responding to a spending review, no matter what he had to say. But they were ashen faced when he then produced with a proud flourish Mao’s little red book. Doing so shows how unsuited McDonnell is to this role: it is a fundamentally naive move.
He also failed to give Osborne the credit he promised to give him if the Chancellor U-turned on tax credits. This is not even something Labour can take credit for as the row was largely driven by Tory backbenchers and the press, and consolidated by peers. His attacks on Osborne for failing to meet his deficit targets were fair, but politically pointless given no-one believes Labour would have come anywhere near either. He didn’t manage to make his reasonably clever line of a ‘deficit for the future’ a theme of his speech either.
That there was nothing Labour could really take credit for or attack the Tories on highlighted not just the party’s utter misery, but also that the main opposition to this spending review will have to come from elsewhere. On the basis of what was announced today, that looks likely to be local councils.
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