We are accustomed now, to Jeremy Corbyn’s trademark move when faced with an open goal, which is to pivot through 180 degrees and blast it the full 100 yards into his own net, so at least today’s efforts had a hint of innovation. With the long-range own goal looming with its usual dreaded certainty, instead the Leader of the Opposition stopped, picked up the ball as if it were a never-before-seen ceremonial artefact from an undiscovered civilisation, and furtively glanced around to see if anyone fancied a game of badminton.
At 11.38am Philip Hammond, widely considered the safest pair of hands in the Government, had incinerated his first ever Budget as Chancellor. The only meaningful policy in it, a rise in National Insurance contributions for the self-employed, ditched within a week. A Government with a 17 per cent poll lead and no credible opposition coming from any corner of the house, had run scared from the reaction of its only foe, the right-wing sections of the media, in an act of spinelessness made all the more, well, spineless, by the fact The Sun had already given him a kicking on the matter a full week before the Budget.
With only 20 minutes to prepare his response to the Government’s U-turn, there was cause to hope Mr Corbyn might have to keep it mercifully simple. Who? Why? How? That sort of thing.
But, no. Most weeks, Theresa May is to be commended for patiently rooting around for the question hiding like lipstick in an oversized handbag, somewhere inside Mr Corbyn’s mumbled perorations. But this week the questions were simply not there to be found. A brand new government had dismantled its first Budget within a week, and only two of the Labour leader’s six questions contained any semblance of a question within them. Most were on the evidently pre-planned topic of schools funding, Mr Corbyn determined as ever to stick to the script, undisturbed by the trifling interference of reality.
When the Prime Minister had arrived, at three minutes to 12, the handbrake U-turn 20 minutes old by that point, she sat down next to the Chancellor. I counted to 20 before either acknowledged one another. Some brief words were then followed by Mr Hammond staring straight ahead into the middle distance as if his neck were trapped in a vice.
By the end of Mr Corbyn’s efforts the two were laughing and joking with one another again.
With regard to the U-turn, it’s possible to feel sorry for Mr Hammond. Here he is, number two in a new, unelected government, compelled to continue to honour manifesto promises from a manifesto that sank the last government, even though the circumstances have changed as dramatically as the personnel.
But a capitulation of that swiftness and severity, under the weakest of pressure from the Brexiteering press, tell you almost everything you really would rather not know about who’ll be calling the tune in the years of negotiations ahead. We have known for a long time it is a government that absolutely doesn’t believe in what it’s doing. That it absolutely doesn’t know what it’s doing is quite new.
But who will stop them? On this evidence their most formidable opponent is their own ineptitude. A comforting thought, perhaps.