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Forget Osborne. It was Miliband's afternoon, says Mehdi Hasan

Miliband can do it - give him a chance.

Forget the Budget. As the IPPR's Will Straw pointed out on Twitter:

What a waste of an hour. Nothing in the #Budget that hadnt been leaked.

Indeed. The Hugh Dalton era is well and truly over. George Osborne stood at the despatch box, with his glass of water, and performed a glorified version of a TV-news-channel paper review, confirming the various leaks and briefings to the press - from the cut in the top rate of tax to the increase in the tax allowance. But there was no still no sign of a stimulus package; no plan for growth. The Osborne slump continues.

The economics, therefore, took a backseat to the politics. This was, after all, yet another test for Ed Miliband. How would he perform? What would he say? How would he sound? The coalition's bizarre decision to slash the popular 50p top rate of tax, in particular, presented the leader of the opposition with an open goal - and, this time, he didn't miss. He looked - and sounded - confident; his opponents, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, looked exasperated and annoyed as they sat and listened.

Miliband had facts:

What did the Chancellor say in August last year about America's more balanced deficit plan:

"Those who spent the whole of the past year telling us to follow the American example need to answer this simple question: why has the US economy grown more slowly than the UK economy?"

Mr Deputy Speaker, the numbers are in.

And the Chancellor is plain wrong.

The US economy grew at 1.7% last year, twice the rate of ours.

This Government have run out of excuses.

He had outrage:

Under his tax cut, a banker earning five million pounds will get an extra £240,000 a year.

Let's call this what it really is:

The Government's very own bankers' bonus.

He had humour:

It is great to support the great British success stories like Downton Abbey.

A tale of a group of out of touch millionaires.

Who act like they're born to rule.

But turn out to be no good at it.

Sound familiar Mr Deputy Speaker?

We all know it's a costume drama.

They think it's a fly on the wall documentary.

My own favourite gag/trick was when the Labour leader asked members of the coalition cabinet, seated opposite him, to raise their hands if they would be personally benefiting from the cut in the 50p top rate of tax. It was a cheap shot - but it hit home. Millionaire ministers shifted uneasily in their seats; some - I'm looking at you William Hague and George Young! - looked away and pretended not to hear. "Just nod," proclaimed Miliband, deploying a favourite put-down of the Prime Minister to great effect.

It was, in my view, a brilliant speech - especially given how difficult and awkward it is for leaders of the opposition to respond to Budget statements in the Commons, at such short notice. One friend of Miliband told me: "We were pretty pleased." Well, that's an understatement! Another source close to the Labour leader said the speech was a "group effort" but that "Ed and Torsten [Henricson-Bell, Miliband's economics adviser and the Labour Party's new director of policy] get most credit" for writing it. If only his conference speech had been delivered with such gusto. . .

The former Labour minister and ardent Blairite, George Foulkes, who backed David Miliband in the 2010 leadership contest, tweeted:

Ed Miliband has delivered the best Budget response I have heard from Opposition Leaders in 33 years in Parliament.

Brother David joined the tributes, with this brief tweet:

Excellent Budget response by Ed

The pessimists and defeatists on the Labour front and backbenches should take note not just of the dismal failure of the coalition's austerity measures - which some of the more right-wing among them would like to ape and emulate - but also their leader's bravura performance this afternoon. Yes, I admit: they are few and far between; far too few for my liking. But Miliband can do it. So, as I've said before, give him a chance.

 

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Photo: Getty
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The new catchphrase that John McDonnell hopes will keep Britain in Europe

The shadow chancellor's gambit could prove decisive. 

John McDonnell has a new catchphrase: “Tory Brexit”.

It may sound uncomfortably close to the name of a new character in Star Wars but it’s what McDonnell and his team believe is the best route to turn Labour voters out for a Remain vote in the coming referendum.

Shadow ministers and Labour MPs are increasingly worried that Labour voters don’t know what the party’s stance on the referendum is – and even more troublingly, they don’t much care. That much of the media has covered the contest largely through the prism of the Conservative succession has only made matters worse. The government’s message about the dangers of Brexit, too, are calibrated towards the concerns of Tory voters: house prices, security, and the economy.

As I write in this week’s New Statesman, Vote Leave, the official campaign to secure a Brexit vote on 23 June, has long known that the referendum will be won and lost among Labour voters, hence their early focus on putting more money into the National Health Service and the dangers of the Trans-Atlantic Trade Partnership (TTIP).  

Vote Leave have also, quietly and effectively, been putting it about that a Brexit vote would allow fairer immigration rules for non-European migrants, something that, I’m told, is beginning to make itself felt among Labour voters who have relatives in Africa and from the Indian subcontinent in particular. It is families from these nations that have felt the biggest effects of Theresa May’s failed attempts to meet the government’s net migration target, with even short trips to attend weddings, funerals or graduations falling foul of the Home Office.

McDonnell’s “Tory Brexit” line is intended to defuse those lines of attack. As one aide puts it, “the idea you can get away from TTIP by leaving Europe under a Tory government – it’s nonsense. You’d have TTIP max”. Similarly, the party will push back in the minority press against the idea that a Leave vote negotiated by a Conservative Prime Minister to the right of David Cameron would be more liberal on migration from outside Europe after Brexit, with Seema Malhotra, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, to play a big role in that enterprise.

(It also has the added bonus of keeping open the idea that Brexit under a leftwing government mightn’t always be the worst thing in the world, which, depending on your perspective, either defangs the minority of Labour politicians who are pro-Brexit, or allows McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn  to keep the party united while not closing the door on supporting a Leave vote at a later date. Either way, it’s canny politics.)

Will it work? The fear for Remain is that Vote Leave have a strong message to get their voters out, though the Remain campaign are confident that they are out-organising the Leave campaign on the ground. The fear of an unmuzzled Conservative party may prove decisive in getting Labour voters to the polls on 23 June. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.