It is a difficult job for any opposition leader to respond to the government’s budget statement. Because of secrecy rules, the opposition is never entirely sure what will be in the budget. As the chancellor delivers his speech, the opposition benches get busy writing notes and delivering them to the front bench to help the leader of the opposition response. They focus on key issues or omissions made by the chancellor.
This year, in front of a packed House of Commons, Jeremy Corbyn rose to respond to his first budget as opposition leader. He had clearly decided to focus on an issue close to his heart – inequality.
Instead of the reserved, slightly bland style it has come to expect from Corbyn, the house was treated to passion and conviction at the dispatch box.
Corbyn began by dismissing Osborne’s 2016 budget as a “culmination of six years of his failures”. He argued that the recovery, which Osborne had spoken about, was built on sand and based on social inequality. The poorest had been hit the hardest by austerity – something he argued was based on ideological choice rather than financial necessity.
Keen to paint the Conservatives as toffs, he argued that the budget did nothing to stop “mates rates” tax options for big corporations. Meanwhile, investing in the HS3 trainline and the M62 motorway in Yorkshire and Lancashire could not disguise systematic under-investment in the north of England.
It should be noted that George Osborne looked slightly bewildered at this point, perhaps because Corbyn had suggested that 97% of those working on the Northern Powerhouse were based in London.
Making his case
For Corbyn, this was also an opportunity to pitch for new supporters. He argued that only the Labour Party could fight the gender pay gap, or deal with the tax rises and benefits cuts which hit the poorest in society.
He even argued that only Labour could harness the enthusiasm of young people to improve Britain’s productivity, inferring that British workers were being demotivated by the Cameron government and its actions.
There was support for the extra funding promised to fight homelessness and also improve flood defences, although Corbyn was keen to blame both issues on the Conservative government. Praise, too, for the planned sugar tax, with Corbyn paying particular deference to TV chef Jamie Oliver – a name drop many of us would have perhaps found a little unexpected on budget day.
Surprisingly little attention was paid to the decision to turn all schools into academies, particularly since this announcement was trailed ahead of Osborne’s speech.
Then it was back to his central theme. Corbyn argued that the government was “cruel and callous” and that cuts to disability benefits denied people of their dignity. The Conservatives, he said, were only interested in protecting vested interests, while Labour would oppose changes and campaign for a better situation for all.
As he sat down, how should Corbyn have felt? He should have been relieved that he survived such a difficult job and that he didn’t make any large or obvious errors. He could also be pleased that he had demonstrated a more aggressive style at the dispatch box, really hammering home his points.
Unfortunately, his performance will fail to convert many of the people he needs by his side, both within his own party and outside. While it was full of fire and conviction, it was not necessarily brimming with detail – or answers to the financial problems faced by the UK.