Jeremy Corbyn has urged the prime minister to tell his “great friend” George Osborne to “find something else to do” in the House of Commons, as he tried to turn the civil war at the heart of the government to Labour’s advantage by calling for the chancellor’s head.
The Labour leader said on Monday that for the first time in his long experience of parliament, “a budget has fallen apart within two days of being delivered”, and it was up to Cameron to explain to the chancellor that he should consider his position.
Corbyn was responding to Cameron, who had used a statement on the outcome of Friday’s European council meeting to issue a staunch defence of his credentials as a one-nation Conservative, after the blistering resignation statement issued by work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith.
The Labour leader declined to mention Duncan Smith, however, initially focusing his reply to the prime minister on the plight of refugees. He deliberately sought to avoid personalising the attack on the Conservatives – though he subsequently switched gears and wound up to an angry attack on the chancellor.
Some backbenchers were disappointed by the Labour leader’s performance against a backdrop of open warfare in the government.
Others, however, said those on all wings of the Labour party would take heart from the Conservatives’ plight. Stephen Doughty, MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, said, “If there is one thing that is bound to unite the Labour benches it is exposing the shameful and ideological attacks of the Tories on the most vulnerable.”
Osborne had come under intense pressure from Labour earlier in the day for failing to appear in parliament to defend his botched budget, sending David Gauke, financial secretary to the Treasury, to respond in his stead to an urgent question tabled by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell.
McDonnell used his question to claim that “the budget process is in chaos”, after cuts to disabled benefits were hastily abandoned amid a growing Tory rebellion. The absence of Osborne was a strong card for Labour, and backbenchers repeatedly demanded that he come to the House of Commons to explain how he would pay for the cancellation of disability benefit cuts.
Veteran MP Dennis Skinner called on Cameron to say that last week’s budget, Osborne’s eighth, would be the last for the chancellor, as “only cats have nine lives”. The prime minister replied simply, “no”.
Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, said before yesterday’s statement in the House: “George Osborne cannot avoid the blame for another disastrous budget that has unravelled in record time.”
Some inside the Labour party believe the Conservatives’ travails have bolstered the position of Corbyn, whose grip on the leadership had been threatened by rumblings of discontent from backbench MPs, and persistent rumours about the risk of a challenge.
By echoing his argument that the chancellor’s spending cuts were politically, not economically, motivated, Duncan Smith strengthened the hand of those within the party who support an anti-austerity stance.
Other senior Labour politicians made memorable interventions. Yvette Cooper, who stood against Corbyn for the leadership, brandished the budget red book and told Gauke, standing in for the chancellor: “If he’s too scared to answer the questions on the issue, he’s not fit to do the job.”
When the former shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna urged the prime minister to repeal the so-called bedroom tax, arguing that it hit disabled people disproportionately hard, Gauke archly called him the “shadow shadow chancellor”. Some former Labour front-benchers, including Ummuna, have been working together to formulate a distinctive response to economic policy from outside the leadership team.
There were also questions about whether it was a wise tactic for Corbyn to call for the chancellor’s head, after Osborne’s position had been shored up by a barrage of supportive questions from Conservative backbenchers during Gauke’s statement, and by fulsome praise from the prime minister when he took to the despatch box.
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