Budget 2016: Corbyn under scrutiny from Labour MPs

By Iain Watson
Political correspondent, BBC News

image copyrightPA
image captionMr Corbyn welcomed the sugar levy but tore into the rest of Mr Osborne's Budget

With some pollsters suggesting his own personal ratings are lower than any Labour leader since Michael Foot three decades ago, it was perhaps brave of Jeremy Corbyn to make failure the theme of his Budget response.

Certainly it drew derision from the Conservative benches and the deputy speaker had to intervene several times to calm the atmosphere.

The Labour leader accused Chancellor George Osborne of "six years of failure" - failing to meet his own targets to balance the books and to rebalance the economy.

And that F word was deployed time and again. George Osborne, he argued, had also failed on investment, productivity and tackling inequality,

In the Commons chamber, the Conservative chair of the Treasury Select Committee Andrew Tyrie acknowledged that it is the most difficult task an opposition leader faces - responding to a detailed budget of which he has no advance sight.

So a decision seemed to have been taken in advance by Labour's upper echelons to take a relatively risk-free approach, and denounce the things that were obviously going to be in the Budget rather than respond to the detail - though there was a welcome for the "surprise" sugar tax announcement.

No Mao

Lower forecasts for growth were compared to the "lofty rhetoric" of the chancellor in past statements when he promised "a march of the makers".

And not for the first time austerity was criticised as a "political choice" - a point Jeremy Corbyn had made during the Labour leadership campaign and which was aimed at his internal as well as external opponents.

There was strident criticism in his speech of government cuts in personal independence payments for people with disabilities while corporation tax was being cut.

But he said little about what Labour would do instead. It took a later briefing from his shadow chancellor and close political ally John McDonnell to state that the disability cuts would be reversed by returning corporation tax to its former rate - and that Labour would accept the increase in the threshold at which the 40p rate of tax is paid.

image copyrightPA
image captionUnlike other statements, the opposition leader does not get advance sight of the Budget speech

But there was no attempt to emulate the jaw-dropping response to the Autumn Statement last year - when Mr McDonnell produced a copy of Chairman Mao's little red book.

It was an attempt at political satire - highlighting the sale of British assets to a big foreign government and the chancellor's attempts to get more infrastructure investment from a country with a less than salubrious human rights record.

But it fell flat when the chancellor parried the attack by suggesting his left-wing opposite number was waving around his own "signed copy" and had sent shadow cabinet members to "re-education camps".

The whole episode meant less attention was devoted to a government u-turn on tax credits.

Backbench chatter

But there was a price - albeit a smaller one - to be paid by taking a more cautious route this time around. As the old adage goes, it's better to be talked about than not talked about.

media captionJeremy Corbyn: Osborne's Budget is culmination of "six years of his failures"

Jeremy Corbyn's speech lacked focus at times, and wasn't exactly full of light and shade - often delivered in the same tone of voice. Some on his own frontbench were more distracted by their phones and texts than by his rhetoric.

Some on the backbenches quite simply chatted.

media captionThe moment John McDonnell pulled out Mao's "Little Red Book"

And perhaps because the Chamber was so full, some Labour MPs watched him from the gallery above. The line-up was a bit like a frontbench in exile, full of people who range from being mildly to extremely sceptical of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership in public or private.

As one former minister put it: "There was a good opening paragraph in his speech on Osborne's failure to hit his own targets but then he wasted the rest of it with a predictable list of cuts he didn't like. Apart from everything else he has no self discipline so can't stick to one key point."

Another former frontbencher put it more bluntly: "There was no coherent message and no credibility."

'One good joke'

A newer MP was more positive, praising a "good effort" while another liked "his one good joke" - that the Ebbsfleet garden city had been re-announced so many times by the government, there was now one press release for every 12 homes and clearly more press releases would be needed to solve the housing crisis.

However, the shadow chancellor John McDonnell was unequivocal. It wasn't just his verdict, he said, but "right across the PLP" the view was that Jeremy Corbyn "gave a great performance".

But it's unlikely the parliamentary party were the Labour leader's target audience.

As one of his MPs put it privately: "He wasn't light footed enough to respond to the government announcements and focused on "our people" as always. But it will warm the cockles of the Corbynistas."

Amid rumours of a possible challenge to his position abounding at Westminster, Jeremy Corbyn railing against "unfairness" did nothing to make his position less secure amongst grassroots party members and supporters who like his dividing lines with the government and who will vote in any leadership contest.

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