How does an Opposition party make up for the fact that its response to an economic statement is necessarily rather vague and rushed? In previous years Ed Balls would hold a briefing for journalists three or four hours after the announcement so that he could produce analysis involving figures and the small print that it is impossible to conjure up in the two seconds between the Chancellor finishing his statement and the start of your own response.
These briefings became a bit of a show, because Balls loved the knockabout and also loved revealing details that he hoped would skewer George Osborne. As interim Shadow Chancellor, Chris Leslie continued this briefing, admitting after the emergency Budget that it was ‘difficult’ for Labour to oppose a lot of the cuts, while setting out the problem with the tax credit cuts that only became a story many weeks later.
Now that John McDonnell is Shadow Chancellor, that briefing isn’t taking place any more. The tradition has been cut short, and instead press officers are briefing hacks on what Labour’s line of attack is. Straight-talking McDonnell will not be talking straight to the press.
Speaking of straight talking, Labour frontbenchers have been given lines to take today marked ‘SCRIPT’. At one point in the glorious early days of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, this sort of approach to the media would have been frowned upon. Perhaps, like the need for a good chief whip who tells MPs what to do, and a strategy for PMQs, it turns out that some aspects of the old politics are actually quite useful.
PS: It seems that Labour frontbenchers have developed another line to take, which is that McDonnell’s Mao stunt ‘backfired’. Angela Eagle and Owen Smith have both made this comment on air in the past hour.