Mao and then… and money down the back of the sofa

WE’LL get to John McDonnell Mao’s moment later. First here is something forwarded to me by one of the three offspring.

There’s a video clip doing the rounds showing Chancellor George Osborne making his Autumn Statement. Drone, drone, drone – on he goes. Over his shoulder sits David Cameron. The slogan to the clip reads: ‘When you eat sweets on the sly in class…’

And there the Prime Minister is, popping sweets into his mouth. Fitting as at the same time his chancellor was popping sweeties into the nation’s mouth. Some of them might turn out to be those sweets that go suddenly sour. It’s always hard to say when the budgetary bonbons are fresh out of the bag.

The headline announcement concerned the scrapping of the generally reviled plan to cut tax credits. Osborne did not do a U-turn so much as a screeching, Top Gear-style handbrake-turn here, with the Treasury tyres smoking like crazy.

All summer long the chancellor and his cronies had been saying that these cuts had to be made – and would even be good for people (thanks, Jeremy Hunt, for that idiotic contribution). Then Osborne manages to defuse the political bomb due to an unexpected £27 billion fiscal windfall. As everyone is saying this morning, he found the money down the back of the sofa. Except that what he really found was a note saying there might be more money down there if he had a look in a while.

One minute he is doing that stern uncle thing, frowning beneath his Roman emperor crop – is that hair dyed? – saying that we just have to save this money for the good of the nation. You can’t have a successful NHS without a successful economy and so droningly on. The next he has found billions to spare since the last tax projection back in July.

The ease with which Osborne can jump from penury to prosperity is remarkable – and all because of an apparent turn-around in projected tax receipts over the next five years, as drawn up on the back of an envelope by the Office For Budget Responsibility.

The chancellor claimed to have listened on tax credits – presumably to his own backbenchers telling him it was a terrible idea and he was a screaming loon for coming up with it. He presented his U-turn with a flourish of chutzpah: at a stroke, mean Scrooge Osborne turned into a present-delivering elf.

As is the way, he brushed off this embarrassing climb-down as the right thing to do. It is certainly good news for those families who were about to be hit – although some of them may still be affected once the small-print poring has been done. The new universal credit will not escape similar reduction, and this will worry many.

These mini-budgets – ‘budgettes’, perhaps – seem to arrive with remarkable regularity these days. Mostly they are an excuse for Parliamentary theatre, a spot of early pantomime this time round. But instead of Berwick Kaler at York Theatre Royal we had the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell jokingly brandishing a copy of the Little Red Book of Mao Zedong, the Chinese communist leader, and then throwing the book as Osborne.

McDonnell was on the BBC Today programme a short while ago saying that this was a joke intended to show how the government was prepared to hand over our national assets to the Chinese.

A good point but a very bad joke.

The thing about a joke is that people have to find them funny. The humour here ended up being directed at the stand-up politician and the point he was trying to make was lost amid the clamour of derision.

Comedians can’t go on the radio later and explain their punchlines, and politicians shouldn’t try that one either. And jokes based on the thoughts of a man who cost the lives of millions of people are in the poorest of taste.

McDonnell’s routine backfired badly because it exposed him and his party to ridicule. The Little Red Book stands as a caricature of what is wrong with left-wing thought, so he made himself look ridiculous by bringing this up. Rather as if Osborne and Cameron decided to stand up in Parliament and do a Bullingdon Club tribute act, throwing bread rolls and trashing the place.

You can live and die by your own caricatures.

As it was, the boorish delight the Tories took in McDonnell’s mistimed joke was enough to put you off ever watching the news again. All those red faces, all those smarmy chops and all that demented hilarity: all because of one rotten joke.

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