Labour stumbles into Osborne’s trap

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell “is a fan of straight-talking, honest politics”, says Dan Hodges in The Daily Telegraph. “So he’ll appreciate the following observation… John McDonnell is a dangerous left-wing ideological clown.” A mere few weeks ago, at the Labour party conference and in a Guardian interview, McDonnell – unilaterally – said that Labour would back Chancellor George Osborne’s fiscal charter, which would enshrine in law the requirement for the government to balance the books by 2018/2019, then run a budget surplus in “normal times”.

In his speech, he said that Osborne was using the fiscal charter as a “political stunt. A trap for us to fall into” in order to brand Labour “deficit deniers”. Why then, this Monday, did he “proceed to hurl himself into the very trap” he had identified by unilaterally reversing his position and announcing that he wouldn’t support the fiscal charter?

The U-turn saw Jeremy Corbyn face a “damaging Commons rebellion” on Wednesday, as dozens of furious backbenchers, urged on by Osborne, considered defying his authority by voting in favour of the charter, says Ben Riley-Smith in The Daily Telegraph. A confusing memo sent out to Labour MPs claimed Labour had changed its stance because the new fiscal charter is different to the one Labour voted for in January, but made no mention of why McDonnell had shifted position.

The ridiculous thing is that Labour should have skirted Osborne’s trap “with ease”, says the FT. “Governments are elected to change the law” and there is no reason why a future Labour chancellor should feel legally or morally bound to follow his predecessor’s path. Osborne himself overturned a Labour attempt at the same trick, calling the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2010 “vacuous and irrelevant”. This “shambles” has lost Labour an opportunity to “set out a credible alternative strategy” and raises the question of whether McDonnell “even grasps the terms of the debate”.

He and Corbyn campaigned against austerity all summer “before pledging support for a law that would have delivered more of it”. Did they not bother to understand the policy? Labour’s disarray in just one month – the re-shuffle, the anthem and IRA debacles, the “chaos” over Trident – don’t go unnoticed by the public, which had long ceased to trust Labour with the economy in any case. “This is a disaster for Labour, but also unhealthy for British politics.”

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