Voices: The killer line from the Budget belonged to Rachel Reeves

Voters need to ask themselves one important question, we were told immediately after the chancellor had stood down: “Are me and my family better off with a Conservative government? And the answer is no.”

That was the killer line from the shadow chancellor’s response to the autumn Budget today, the one that will get all the clips on the evening news.

It also confirmed something I’ve been thinking for a while: Labour has a new “great clunking fist”.

Only this time, it doesn’t take the shape of a glowering Scotsman with a furrowed brow and a challenging approach to body language. This time it takes the shape of the shadow chancellor: Rachel Reeves MP.

Tony Blair’s memorable description of Gordon Brown in 2008 – a threat to David Cameron that he would be crushed by the “great clunking fist” – was a fantastic way of describing both Brown’s approach to running the shadow treasury team before 1997 and his grip on the national finances in the years that followed. It also reminded us of the grip he had exerted over domestic policy while Blair was in No 10.

Reeves’s presentational skills might be a little more accomplished than Brown’s, but there are still many parallels between the two in their ambition and their way of doing business. They exact a high degree of control over what is and isn’t said and what can and can’t be committed to when it comes to policy and spending. They have a clear-eyed vision of what Labour needs to do win and retain power.

Even before the last few weeks of meltdown, Reeves, an economist by training, and her team had identified – just as Brown did before her – that Labour needs to be eye-wateringly tight on the subject of the national finances if it’s to persuade middle-class voters that Labour is nothing to be scared of.

But now, following Liz Truss’s ideological decision to take a sledgehammer to this country’s reputation for financial good sense, Reeves (and much of the rest of the cabinet) clearly believe that fiscal rectitude is no longer a defensive political position but an offensive one too. Essentially, they can win votes on the subject, not just hope to silence their fears.

And poll after poll would suggest they are right.

There is little sign that anything Rishi Sunak or Jeremy Hunt could do or say during the autumn statement (or in the aftermath) will change that polling narrative. Indeed, the heavy burden of cuts to public services that are likely to cut through our communities will serve as a reminder of Tory incompetence in the months and years ahead.

Reeves’ and her allies’ reading of voters – not just in the blue wall, but in the red wall too – is correct. My reading of public opinion is that the big majority of voters simply wouldn’t trust anyone who was making spending commitments willy-nilly, right now.

The great British public correctly believes that Truss and Kwartang have blown a hole in our national finances and they understand that before anyone can start writing cheques for health or education (or, indeed, levelling up), they have to get the books straightened out.

This insight has led to Reeves exacting an inordinate level of power over the output of shadow ministers – even up to and including Keir Starmer. Nothing – literally nothing – can go out of any shadow team that even mentions money without approval from the shadow treasury. Even in private, senior Labour figures are very wary of even suggesting they might spend any extra money at all – not without explicit permission from Reeves’ people.

This is not to say that the shadow cabinet are not willing accomplices. This party-wide policy will only work if the entire shadow cabinet is pushing the same message. Only on Monday, Bridget Phillipson received flak at the Association of Colleges annual conference when she refused to guarantee a funding hike for the further education (FE) sector; a sector, which, let’s be honest, could do with an injection of cash more than most. And one that Labour is determined to focus on in government.

“Because the Conservatives have crashed the economy we don’t know the scale of the damage we will inherit,” she said. “But the reality is we will face a very tough situation, that next Labour government, and that will force us to make some very difficult choices.”

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This is the playbook for now – and quite probably right up to the election. As the FE funding situation illustrates, it doesn’t come without challenges when it comes to promising a vision and a hint of optimism to voters. This is something Starmer, especially, will struggle to grapple with.

But it is a trade off that Reeves has clearly calculated is worth making. People will, eventually, respond to the promise of sunny uplands, but for now, and for the foreseeable, the shadow chancellor believes they’ll settle for financial prudence.

Such a message worked incredibly well in the late 1990s when delivered with a Kirkcaldy drawl – the question is, will it have similar success in the 2020s with a south London accent? I strongly suspect it will.