George Osborne spends his way out of a political recession and the Labour Party implodes (again)….

Is this the end of austerity? Next to the question of whether or not Britain should commence bombing raids in Syria, this was the issue of the week. Generally it broke down that those newspapers and commentators who thought austerity shouldn’t end, thought that it had, and those that wanted to see the back of the squeeze were masochistically braced for yet more cutting to come. Creating an atmosphere of conflict and tension is essential to the craft of punditry. The more-pain-to-come faction lives in a perpetual sense of certainty that people are about to explode in outrage at the closure of libraries and Sure Start centres. They have been like this for the last five years. The failure of the public to react as the enlightened prints say they should might be put down either to ignorance – perhaps they needed to go to the libraries that are no longer there to find out what a Sure Start centre is – or to indolence or, perish the thought, to illiberalism. Either way, rumours of austerity, and its acidic effect on our social infrastructure, have always been greatly exaggerated.

And now it has gone. Or not as the case may be. What was obvious from the Autumn Statement was that George Osborne had found pots of money to invest richly in priority areas for public spending. These were, in no particular order, the NHS, the police and the political career of George Osborne. If it were not for the fact we were all too soon forced to focus on Syria and its attendant civil war – that is the civil war in the Labour Party – there would have been even more purring than there was anyway that the master political strategist had done it again. Cynics – especially tax-paying cynics – were left wondering how on earth it was all going to be paid for.

The Autumn Statement is second only to the Budget in being the occasion for the grand cliché. The devil is always in the detail and the Chancellor is foreever pulling rabbits out of hats. A relatively new entry to the pantheon – finding money down the back of the sofa – also made its dutiful appearance this week, although references to the red book – which usually mean the thick dossier of numbers put out by the Treasury to document the truth behind the Chancellor’s spin – on this occasion took us to Chairman Mao. John McDonnell’s unwisely chosen stuntsmanship distracted us from the fact that the Chancellor was more overrun with rabbits than Watership Down. The only explanation could be that, sod hats, he was fishing them out from down the back of the sofa.

The sofa was provided by the Office for Budget Responsibility, the fiscal equivalent of the Government’s reviewer of terrorism legislation: both are institutions of untethered probity designed to keep in check a politician’s wilder fantasies. It would be sacrilegious to cast aspersions about the OBR’s independence, but perhaps permissible to observe that it always seems to come up trumps for its begetter Mr Osborne. Whether that is because the Chancellor fits his political wizardry to its realities, or its realities tend to bend to accommodate the wizardry is a moot point. This week though, the OBR acted as official scryer, conveniently conjuring a sum of £28 billion from its forward projections for Mr Osborne to spend. This may well be the economic equivalent of a woman with mad eyes and bad skin incanting into the Chancellor’s face “I see money…lots of money”, but he did not need a second excuse. By next Spring, the woman may well be wailing “I see murder, fiscal murder”. Like all the best strategists, Mr Osborne’s method is to make it up as he goes along. Someone asked the Chancellor whether with his Autumn Statement he hadn’t realeased his inner Balls. Less Ed than crystal would have been a smart reply.

All this was, in any case, overshadowed by John McDonnell flourishing Chairman Mao’s little red book across the dispatch box. This was intended as a tactical deployment, rather than ideological: Mr McDonnell did after all assure us that he did not approve of the Chinese dictator’s massacre of 50 million people (“and all that” he added, as if making clear that he also took a dim view of Mao’s habit of under-tipping in restaurants). He wanted, he said, “to bring a little humour and flamboyance into politics”, reminding us that Mao’s humour and flamboyance have always been among his more underrated qualities.

That the joke landed badly showed that Mr McDonnell had forgotten the first law of politics, which is that if people think you are a Communist it is best not to go around quoting from the lexicon of top-draw Communism. Had Alastair Darling tried the same stunt, no one would have paid it the slightest attention. From Mr McDonnell however it provoked an endless stream of media cant. This may be hard cheese on the shadow chancellor. Nevertheless,  he should reflect on the fact that had he wanted to come to the House of Commons dressed in white tie and a top hat he could have got away with it in a way that David Cameron never would.

Mr Cameron was soberly attired the following day for his speech to Parliament on Syria. Framed as a response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee – which had accused the Government of lacking a strategy – the Prime Minister’s statement was long and cogent. It addressed not just why we might want to start bombing ISIL in Syria, but our capabilities for doing so. These include the scarily named “Brimstone precision missile system” which is so brilliant that even the Americans don’t have it. (And why should they: in a country the size of America, Nottingham is precise enough, and that kind of mindset travels.) That there will need to be men on the ground prepared to fight and beat ISIL is not contentious, but these will not be British troops. The PM’s answer to that is to summon up a kind of Uber-army, comprising 70,000 local rebels whose work our airstrikes would support. There was, and is, widespread scepticism around this number and the Prime Minister may need to send his whips out to Syria to count them before he can be confident of any Commons victory.

The media showed rather less interest in what any of this means for Syria than in what it means for the Labour Party. On the question of whether or not Labour MPs should be granted a free vote over bombing ISIL, Jeremy Corbyn’s position is so extreme that not even John McDonnell supports it. An ardent advocate of stopping wars abroad, Mr Corbyn’s every action provokes them in his own backyard. The shadow cabinet broke up on Thursday agreeing to ponder over the weekend the free vote question, only for Mr Corbyn promptly to write out to Labour MPs putting pressure on them to vote his way. Shadow cabinet resignations were predicted if the Labour leader insists on whipping the vote.

And so it went on. Division in Labour’s ranks is now the most boring and predictable story in British politics. Thank heavens then that on Saturday the only politician who did actually resign was a Tory: Grant Shapps was the co-chairman of the Conservative Party when it allegedly failed to investigate properly the activities of Mark Clarke, who has now been banned from the Party for life. Those activities are said to have included bullying, blackmail – to the tragic point where one of the alleged victims committed suicide – and sexual assault. Mr Clarke denies it all. What is undeniable is that he was responsible for an initiative called RoadTrip. This involved moving large numbers of young Conservatives around the country, a reckless and terrifying activity, about which the country has every right to be concerned.

Advertisements