Corbyn could have won against Philip Hammond this weekend – but his obsession with gesture politics ruined his chances

It is unfortunate that in punching themselves in the face last June, the Conservatives somehow knocked Labour spark out on the way through

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For those sadly forced to spend the weekend gardening, raving, fell-walking, glassblowing, BASE jumping, fossicking, knitting, spelunking, watching DVD box sets or indeed any other activity beyond observing the minutiae of your elected leaders – a quick recap.

On Saturday, Jeremy Corbyn went on a Save the NHS march through London, culminating in him telling a (genuinely) packed Parliament Square that the NHS crisis was a “political choice”.

“The money’s there!” he bellowed. “The money’s there! This is a crisis made in Downing Street!”

Two hundred yards or so away in Downing Street, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was sitting honing the last inflections on a pre-budget article for The Sunday Times, which read: “The money’s there! The money’s there! This is a crisis made in Downing Street!”

Alright, so he phrased it slightly differently. What he said was Brexit would lead to “unexpected challenges,” so the £60bn worth of extra revenues he expects to have banked by 2020 – the consequence of better than expected growth figures and a higher than expected tax take – can’t be spent on the NHS, but must instead be stashed away to deal with possible Brexit crises of the future.

It’s almost enough to make one go all nostalgic. Normal, conventional, British politics. Sick patients on trolleys lining the corridors of NHS hospitals, the Tories withholding cash to deal with a stunning, entirely self-inflicted disaster of their own making (which is what Brexit is, don’t forget) just in case Nissan and the like should demand it. The sort of thing that, in simpler times, you mark down as a straightforward win for Labour.

And then, wallop. Sunday evening, quarter to six, right in time to set the week’s agenda, out comes Jeremy Corbyn’s tax return.

Just like last year, the point the Labour leader is trying to prove is that he, unlike Philip Hammond, George Osborne or whoever else happens to be Chancellor, has nothing to hide. His £114,342 a year from the public purse, give or take a few quid from Iranian State TV, the high remuneratory watermark of three anonymous decades in parliament, is a fact he is delighted to make public.

One thing he did choose to hide however was his curious handwriting, which was subject to gentle mocking when he pulled this stunt last year, instead choosing this time to publish not his actual tax return, but a tax statement prepared by an accountant. That last year he also inadvertently revealed he had been fined £100 for filing it late, and had not declared income from a third pension, may also be a factor.

Jeremy Corbyn urges demonstrators to ‘defend the NHS with all of your might’

It was, let’s say unfortunate, that having pumped his “tax return” out for scrutiny by the media, the media then chose to scrutinise it and were surprised to find his bonus income of £40,000 or so for being Opposition leader recorded in an unexpected column, and thus reported as “missing.” It turns out that this income was listed under other benefits, which depending on you believe is either “evidence of media bias” (Diane Abbott), or the consequence of some mitigating circumstances, namely that the “tax return” was not actually a tax return and it took Corbyn’s office seven hours to clarify what was going on, with a statement eventually forthcoming at 12.38am. Regardless, all this came long after Philip Hammond had told the BBC’s Andrew Marr he had absolutely no intention of publishing his own tax return, and that, “this demonstration politics isn't helping to create a better atmosphere in British politics.”

Now, Hammond is not the most emotionally demonstrative of chaps, but if he was about to buckle under the pressure of the Labour leader making his income public, he disguised it well. Maybe, twelve months ago, when Corbyn was a new leader, facing a government anything but on the ropes, seeking to smoke out the Bullingdon boys might have seemed like a smart move. Now there are big questions to deal with, and while it is unfortunate that in punching themselves in the face last June, the Conservatives somehow knocked Labour spark out on the way through – the place in public life for Jeremy Corbyn's income, which is already a matter of public record, is even more vanishingly small.   

In the meantime, what we do know from his imminent budget is that he wants to transform technical education with £500m a year (impossible) and make sure it’s Britain leading the way in nuclear robotics, artificial intelligence, electric cars and battery technology with, that’s right, another £500m (also impossible) – but nobody’s talking about that.

The Labour leader has been making a bit of headway of late, relentlessly focusing Prime Minister’s Questions on the NHS and social care crisis and nothing else, helped significantly by jettisoning the gesture politics of his “Ask Jeremy” mailbag. Had he not resorted to gesture politics on Sunday night, he’d have won this weekend too – which you barely need to have been paying any attention to know.

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