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18 November 2022

The Autumn Statement was an elegy from a Conservative Party in mourning

While Labour is setting the terms of the next election, the Tories are unable to move on from the legacy of Boris Johnson.

By Rachel Wearmouth

The Conservative Party is still grieving the loss of Boris Johnson, its flawed but charismatic talisman and Labour-destroying machine. The grieving process is difficult and it can make you do irrational things. Choosing Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng – the denial stage? – to try to fill the void certainly seemed like clouded judgement.

As Jeremy Hunt listed all the miserable compromises of his Autumn Statement in the Commons yesterday, it became clear that the governing party has moved into a new phase of grappling with its loss: bargaining and acceptance. Gone was the old “BoJo” boosterism and the right-wing radicalism of Truss. No treats. No surprises. Just a hell of a lot of Tory tax rises. The Chancellor may have calmed the markets and the nerves of Conservative MPs, but with cuts and squeezed household budgets ahead, the party knows healing is a long way away.

But the turbulence of politics leaves no room for sympathy, and if Hunt had hoped for any from Rachel Reeves, he was disappointed. The shadow chancellor was pitiless in her response in the Commons, telling Hunt he “should have come here today to ask for forgiveness” but “all the country got… was an invoice for the economic carnage that this government has created”.

She accused the government of “pickpocketing” British workers with the so-called stealth taxes of freezing income tax thresholds. She also goaded the Tories for defending non-dom tax status and poked fun at Rishi Sunak’s administration by calling it “Downing Street as Dallas” where “old cast members return as if nothing has happened”.

It marks a change in tone across the Labour front bench. Keir Starmer – who on 9 November laid into Sunak for appointing Gavin Williamson, calling the disgraced former cabinet minister “a sad middle manager getting off on intimidating those beneath him” – has put Labour on an election footing. His party is soaring in the polls, but its MPs know they will only hang on to their lead by ensuring the Tories are aggressively held to account for their record.

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Hunt yesterday tried to paint the British economy as the victim of global headwinds and repeatedly underlined that inflation was spiralling due to the Russia-Ukraine war. There may be some truth in that, but the government no longer has the space to make excuses, to be divided or to feel sorry for itself.

The Labour Party is already fighting the next election but the Conservatives are still fighting the last one – the “BBC” election, in which Boris, Brexit and Corbyn helped the Tories over the line. But that era is over and the sooner the Conservatives truly accept it, the more competitive they will be.

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This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: What bad news did Jeremy Hunt bury in his Autumn Statement?]