George Osborne is all clichés and crossed fingers

Did you force the Chancellor to U-turn on cuts to tax credits?

If not, you evidently didn’t try hard enough.

Among those who have claimed credit so far are Corbynites, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru.

Don’t buy the spin. The credit goes to the House of Lords, Conservative backbenchers, the Sun, and the sensible wing of the Labour Party. The government has a majority in the Commons and could have pushed through the changes if it wanted. What scuppered the plans was the bolshiness of the upper chamber, unease on the government backbenches, as voiced by Heidi Allen, and a thundering Sun leader that branded Osborne’s move “bonkers”.

The Chancellor could have taken on one of these adversaries and eked a victory if enough moderate Labour MPs got on board. While the hard-left screamed, Labour centrists presented sensible and nuanced cases against the reforms and made clear that Osborne would find no refuge in them.

Of course, that’s the politics. The real winners of the Chancellor’s U-turn are the three million families forecast to be £1000 per year worse off under the cuts. However sincere its intentions, this government all too often sounds callous and mean-spirited towards people who are doing it tough. Osborne, who is biding his time until David Cameron vacates Number 10, might want to reflect on the lessons of this episode. Taking the working poor and giving them a right good shoeing – either to save a few quid or pour encourager les autres – is something you can get away with when there’s effectively no opposition. Another clanger like this and the voters will not be quite so forgiving.

The Chancellor executed a second U-turn in arresting his proposed cuts to the police. In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks and with Britain on high alert, to press ahead would have been politically unpalatable and even perilous to national security. Besides, the Tories can’t very well taunt Labour over its shadow chancellor’s support for disarming the police if the government is financially immobilising the boys and girls in blue.

Much backslapping will be taking place in the bars of Westminster this evening over the delivery of a populist, crowd-pleasing economic statement. Ministers and MPs should put the Veuve Clicquot on ice: George Osborne has deployed his Brownite “dividing lines” to lethal effect yet again but not without losing some face. If the Labour Party a) survives the next five years and b) gets itself a half-decent leader, there will be mileage in reminding the public of the would-be PM who tried to rob the poor and weaken the police.

“Long-term economic plan.” “Northern powerhouse.” The Chancellor is a fiscally-incontinent cliché generator, talking in tough bromides all the while his economic strategy is crossed fingers behind his back. Like Gordon Brown, Osborne views public expenditure as a metric of machismo and questions of economic viability are secondary. To fund his spending commitments and U-turns, he is betting the whole house on the black 21 of economic growth. If the global economy doesn’t come through for him, he won’t be fixing the roof while the sun is shining, the roof will come crashing down on his head.

The rhetoric is strong in this one, though, and if his numbers demand more scrutiny, his spruiking skills are beyond dispute. Talking a good game is half the battle and particularly when the opposition can’t even string a sentence together. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell responded to a statement though not obviously the one Osborne had made. It was a weak, halting performance that confirmed his unsuitability for frontline politics.

That was the good part. It got worse. Much, much worse. McDonnell underscored Labour’s great leap backward when he quoted from Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book. Some might question the wisdom of cribbing a mass murderer – Quotations from Chairman Mao is Mein Kampf for hipsters – but tossing the Marxist-Leninist bible across the despatch box was pure theatre. It was also apt given McDonnell’s five-year plan to destroy the Labour Party.

Britons, especially those on low and middle incomes, need a Labour Party that will hold the government to account. They do not need cheap stunts and common room laugh lines. They deserve better than this.

Spare a thought too for the Scottish Nationalists. George Osborne taunted them with forecasts of a 94% plummet in oil revenues, saying an independent Scotland – due to debut on the world stage four months from now had we voted Yes – would have faced “catastrophic cuts”. The SNP will hold the line and the faithful will keep reciting the mantras but sensible Nationalists know the truth: The economic case for independence as presented to Scotland in 2014 has not one skerrick of credibility left.

As the political situation in the UK strengthens the case for Scotland to go its own way, it is imperative that the Nationalists construct a feasible financial model for a new state. Shouting down all dissent is a comforting exercise in self-harm.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Gareth Milner by Creative Commons 2.0.

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