John Rentoul: Beneath the bluster, she had a point

Harman was not going to convince anyone - fair-minded centrists or wavering Liberal Democrats, with such a partisan attack
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There is a sentimental tendency to regard female Labour politicians, once we are reassured that they are completely powerless, as magnificent and impressive. Harriet Harman is the current holder of the title of Darling of Everyone Who Disagrees With Her. Previous holders have included Barbara Castle, who once played a Labour conference like a violin during the middle Blair-Brown years over the issue of linking state pensions with earnings, an ambition that will now be realised under a Conservative Government, and Clare Short.

I had a small and ignoble part in the deification of Short, as Alastair Campbell reminded me in his unexpurgated diaries. In 1996 he railed privately about a "ridiculous" article launching a "Save Clare Short for the Nation" campaign in this newspaper. She had just caused him, and his boss Tony Blair, no end of trouble by walking out of a live television interview when she was asked what she thought was an awkward question about a Tube strike. She was punished by being moved from transport to international development, which turned out to be a promotion, but that is another story. Andrew Marr, then editor of The Independent, had the bright idea of running a "Save this national treasure" campaign and asked me if I would write it up.

This week was just like old times. Labour MPs who ought to know better said to me, "Whatever you think of her, that was a tremendous performance." Harriet Harman's Budget reply, one of the hardest fixtures of the parliamentary calendar, was a full-throttle steamroller kind of show. "Magnificent," said one journalist whose identity is safe with me. Even Peter Oborne in the Daily Mail thought it was "passionate, well scripted and made many observers wonder regretfully why she did not stand for the Labour leadership".

That is, of course, part of the reason why her response was treated so indulgently. If she had actually been a candidate for the Labour leadership, Oborne would probably have been writing a two-page spread in the Mail on his hellish vision of Britain in 2020 should she ever by some mischance become prime minister. As it is, because she is able to stand up in front of the baying Tories and deliver some lines that were indeed "well scripted" at a steady volume without hesitation, deviation or much repetition, she is hailed as the Great Lost Leader that Labour Missed.

What this Budget ought to be remembered for, however, is the Opportunity that Labour Missed. Because the truly remarkable thing about Harman's response was that she had a point. George Osborne's weak point is the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, headed by Sir Alan Budd. According to Private Eye this week, Sir Alan looks like Sir Ben Kingsley, the villain in the new Disney film, Prince of Persia. I am not familiar with the plot of the film but the computer game on which it is based (and I don't think I am making this up), featured the handy ability to rewind time whenever the player-protagonist went wrong (well, it is better than a "game over" screen).

Osborne may be wishing for a similar ability now, because the Office for Budget Responsibility has already proved troublesome. There were some commentators who predicted before the election that it was the most important of a range of new quangos proposed by the quango-bashing opposition that would constrain the power of David Cameron and his Chancellor in government. As the Prime Minister said the other day, quoting yourself is the first sign of madness, so I won't say who was included in their number. Suffice it to say that I do not think that anyone predicted that the OBR would trip Osborne up within 50 days, and before the Bill to put it on a statutory footing was even before the House.

But that is what it did. The OBR forecasts included in the Budget documents showed that it predicted lower growth this year and next after it knew what was in the Budget than before. Osborne had been forced to include a paragraph in his speech explaining how this was in fact a vote of confidence in his measures. He quoted the OBR as saying that to compare its "before" and "after" forecasts would be "misleading". That was because the "before" forecast "included the lower interest rates that expectations of this week's Budget have already brought about. So, as Sir Alan has written, actually to follow the fiscal path set out by the previous Government 'would lead to higher interest rates and... lower economic activity'." Do you understand that? Hardly anyone in the House of Commons listening to the Chancellor did. But two people did. Nick Clegg nodded vigorously at this point. And Yvette Cooper, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was engaged in conversation with Harman across Alistair Darling on the Labour front bench.

So Harman laid into a Budget that would "hold back economic growth". And, as I say, she had a point. But what a terrible, terrible way to make it. This was a moment for subtlety. This was a moment for a quiet response. This was a moment for a Labour leader, or acting leader, to say, "Well, that was very interesting." It needed someone to patronise Osborne and suggest that he was engaged in politics not economics. It needed someone to go through Sir Alan Budd's words and ask what on earth was going on. How could "expectations of the Budget" lead to a higher growth forecast than the Budget itself?

Instead, she launched into: "This is a Tory Budget that will throw people out of work." The surprising thing is that it may be true, but she was not going to convince anyone – fair-minded centrist voters or wavering Liberal Democrats – with such a partisan attack. The question is whether continuing the Labour Government's approach would have been better for jobs, growth and the country in the long run. The answer is not obvious or clear-cut, but to sow doubts in people's minds requires a pretence of open-mindedness. Harriet Harman is good at neither pretending nor being open-minded.

John Rentoul is Chief Political Commentator for the Independent on Sunday. He blogs at independent.co.uk/jrentoul and twitter.com/jrentoul

j.rentoul@independent.co.uk

For further reading

'The Alastair Campbell Diaries: Vol I, Prelude to Power, 1994-97', by Alastair Campbell (Hutchinson, 2010); 'Locked in the Cabinet', by Robert Reich (Knopf, 1997)

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