A stern telling-off

Rachel Reeves has had enough of these misbehaving Tories

Watching the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon, I experienced an epiphany: what if the last 14 years were all part of a brilliant plan by Labour to lull the Conservatives into a false sense of security?

Think it through. The Ed Miliband years. The Jeremy Corbyn years. The first couple of Keir Starmer years. All the splits and infighting, the strange policy positions, the struggles to look human: what if they were all intended to persuade the fearsome election-winning machine that is the Tory Party that it could put its feet up, allowing Labour to sweep in and utterly destroy it?

The insight came at Treasury Questions, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, tussled with his shadow, Rachel Reeves. She’d asked him about the plan to abolish national insurance, saying that to replace it with income tax would mean raising rates by eight pence in the pound. Hunt had what he obviously thought was a smart reply: “Which is why it is not our policy.” 

Reeves feigned surprise, pointing out that Hunt himself had suggested merging the two taxes less than two months ago, in a television interview. The Chancellor looked a little surprised to learn that Labour has people going around writing down the things he says. His expression seemed to ask whether that was really playing fair. On Reeves went, pointing out that this would hit pensioners, who currently pay income tax but not NI. 

“Our policy is to abolish employee national insurance, which means we want to bring it down to zero,” Hunt replied. This may turn out to have been a significant moment, though it’s quite possible that Hunt, didn’t appreciate what he’d done. He had hardened what began in the Budget as a vague “long-term ambition” into current government “policy”. 

That makes it even easier for Labour to play this game every day until the election. Will this policy be funded by cuts to spending, Truss-ite levels of borrowing, or tax rises elsewhere? 

The oddest thing about this ambush is that Labour has made its approach absolutely clear. Reeves had set it out, very much not for the first time, in a speech on Tuesday morning. Hence the thought that the Conservatives are too used to playing politics on an easy setting. 

Reeves had been introduced at her event by a special guest. “My name’s Nick Boles,” he’d begun. “I was a Conservative MP, and a Conservative minister.” Defections are so routine these days that his presence barely caused eyebrows to rise. Cynics suggested he might have been promised something by Labour, but I’m sure it’s entirely sincere. A million years ago, I watched Lord Boles — is it premature to call him that? — quit his party in despair after MPs on all sides conspired to reject every possible Brexit option. He’s exactly the kind of boring centrist that the Conservatives have thrown off in their heady quest for ideological purity. 

She delivered the speech in a tone of cold fury

Reeves’s message was that the Tories were taking people for fools by suggesting that everything was going well with the economy. She delivered the speech in a tone of cold fury, like a headmistress furious about what had taken place at last week’s Sixth Form Disco. “They say we’ve turned a corner,” she fumed. “But try telling that to the 6.4 million households across England and Wales that last year saw their rent increase or had to remortgage.” 

The past few years have felt painful for Labour, but the strategy — let’s pretend that’s what it was — has paid off. The Conservative Party is now on the floor and, as the reaction to the local election results over the weekend made it clear, in a state of full-spectrum denial, facing electoral disaster and loudly announcing that things could go either way. It’s not just that, as Reeves said, they struggle to acknowledge reality when talking to voters. They can’t tell the truth to themselves, either.

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