No-one envies the person whose job it is to respond for the Opposition to an economic statement that has just been made to the House of Commons. But perhaps John McDonnell’s job today was rather less terrifying given few people were seriously worrying about what he had to say.
The House of Commons was rather quiet as the shadow chancellor spoke. There was no obvious organised heckling of McDonnell from the Tory benches. Previously George Osborne’s Treasury Support Group of dozens of backbenchers would arm themselves with special insults to fling at Labour to wrong-foot the frontbencher responding to an autumn statement or budget. Today those MPs didn’t seem to have had their pre-statement meeting: John Bercow only had to rebuke general chuntering rather than the wall of noise that we used to hear in response to Ed Balls standing up at the dispatch box. Labour MPs weren’t helping their man out, either. When McDonnell tried to rouse them in chants of ‘down’ and ‘failed’, only a few Corbynite MPs made a half-hearted collection of sounds.
Labour has become rather irrelevant, particularly in a Commons context. Its position in the polls is the main reason ministers don’t fear probing from shadow ministers so much, but the lack of seriousness with which Corbyn and McDonnell treat parliament in general has also diminished the party’s scrutinising force. This force is then further diminished by the lack of seriousness with which most Labour MPs treat their party’s leadership: moderate backbenchers have been focusing on their own scrutiny strategy rather than on trying to help McDonnell with his.
So the stakes were rather low as the shadow chancellor got up to speak. His response was sombre and he argued that the Tories were responsible for the pressures that the ‘Jams’ face in their lives. Like every shadow chancellor before him, his focus will be on the detailed analysis that Labour aims to provide in the hours after the statement. Finding details that allow the party’s spinners to argue that the statement is ‘already falling apart’ is the challenge the shadow treasury team tries to meet as it pores over the documents. But perhaps an even bigger challenge this year is managing to get enough attention for the government to worry about this verdict at all.