Watching the Autumn Statement as a Labour supporter is a bit like watching Man City play Arsenal as a Gooner: you hope you’re going to win, but really you know that you don’t have much of a chance. It’s especially infuriating given that, for some reason, they’ve decided to field a B-team rather than play any of their best players. John McDonnell is the old, lumbering centre-back, who in his heyday could tackle well but now barely has time to catch his breath when competing with a younger and more skilled opponent. Labour’s lackadaisical defence leaves Osborne free to run rings around the defenders, and just when you think things can’t get any worse, McDonnell scores an own goal in the form of a Chairman Mao quote. Bill Shankly famously said, ‘football isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s much more serious than that’. When talking about football, Shankly’s comment is a joke. When talking about politics, it’s just reality.
Thankfully, the Autumn Statement is just a league game, the General Election is the cup final. When you lose a game in the league, you’ve dropped some points, but you can reconvene and learn from your mistakes. Hopefully, this is what Labour does. For one thing, leave the little red book at home. It’s amazing that this wasn’t obvious before the Autumn Statement, but if making this mistake stops McDonnell from pulling a similar stunt closer to the election, that might be a good thing. Secondly, when there’s an open goal, shoot! Osborne’s U-Turn on tax credit cuts is a good political move by the Tories, but that doesn’t mean it’s not embarrassing. It’s a golden opportunity to say, ‘Was it not, several days ago, the Chancellor’s position that tax credits subsidised low paying employers? What ever happened to that?’. Of course, McDonnell did no such thing. His attack on Osborne was meager, presumably because he had prepared a speech criticising both tax credit cuts and the cuts to policing. By U-turning on both of these, Osborne outflanked the Labour front bench and forced McDonnell to improvise.
Although Labour can learn from their mistakes, McDonnell has time and time again proved a liability to the party. His comments on the IRA should have excluded him from the possibility of serving in the shadow cabinet to begin with, but given that he was made shadow chancellor, to make so many unforced errors is unforgiveable. The U-Turn on voting against the government’s fiscal responsibility bill was bad enough, and saying that his actions had been ‘embarrassing, embarrassing, embarrassing, embarrassing, embarrassing’ didn’t help, but quoting from Chairman Mao, a man who killed anywhere from 18 to 78 million people, and the kind of person who Corbyn must not be associated with given that in the eyes of the general public he’s already something of a ‘loony lefty’, McDonnell cannot remain as shadow Chancellor for any longer.
One implication of the Autumn Statement is that Osborne has marked himself out as the Centrist candidate for next Conservative leader. His Europhilia in combination with a slower deficit reduction plan leaves him vulnerable to an attack from the right of his party, although it’s unclear who would be the prime candidate to lead that attack. Theresa May was thought to have fallen out of favour, but her Conservative Party Conference attack on immigration earnt her brownie points with the right-wing MPs. Another viable option is Sajid Javid, who signaled this week that there is a good chance he will campaign to leave the European Union. Comically, he replied to this tweet from the pro-EU campaign: ‘The Business Secretary (Javid) is clear: being in Europe means more trade for UK businesses’, with a tweet saying that he actually favoured leaving the EU if no further concessions were made to the UK. Javid is becoming more prominent within the party, and, especially if the UK votes to leave the EU, he is another possible obstacle to George Osborne’s crown.
When the cup final comes, Labour must be ready for whoever is the Tory captain. With the current Labour lineup, it isn’t likely that Labour will be orchestrating any sort of victory parade in 2020, but there is young talent in the party, as well as experienced Labourites who are currently on the (back)bench. Hopefully, some of them will come to the forefront of Labour politics soon, because if not, I suspect that we are in for another thrashing.