Autumn Statement 2015: McDonnell offers advice to 'comrade Osborne'

Shadow chancellor has a 'Chairman Mao moment' in his response

Chairman Mao's little red book
(Image credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, has surprised MPs by quoting from Chairman Mao, the Chinese communist leader blamed for 20 to 45 million deaths in the 1950s and 60s.

"Yes, this really did happen in real life," FastFT said, as McDonnell delivered his response to George Osborne's Autumn Statement.

Attempting to score a point off the Chancellor's cosy relationship with China, the veteran left-winger brandished a careworn copy of Chairman Mao's little red book. "Let's quote from Mao," he said, acknowledging that it was "rarely done in this chamber".

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His, or Mao's, advice to Osborne was as follows: "we must not pretend to know what we do not know."

"MPs weren't sure how to respond at first, but quickly guffaws travelled across the room, prompting McDonnell to tell them to 'behave'," City AM notes.

Osborne couldn't believe his luck. He picked up the book that McDonnell had tossed onto the dispatch box and quipped: "Oh look, it's his signed copy". He went on to say the "trouble with the Labour leadership is they've all been sent for re-education".

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McDonnell had been attempting to highlight the government's willingness to roll out the red carpet for China, and the billions of pounds of investment in infrastructure Britain has accepted from the Chinese. He said the difference between the Chancellor and himself is that he wants to own assets on behalf of the British people, whereas Osborne wants to "sell them to People's Republic of China".

In his wider response, McDonnell concentrated his fire on the fact that the government has missed targets for debt reduction set by the previous coalition – and he found in the small print of the Autumn Statement an admission that current projections suggest it will exceed its own welfare cap in three of the next five years.

Having been wrongfooted by Osborne's U-turn on tax credits, he recovered his poise to point out that claimants of universal credit, which will eventually replace top-up benefits for low-income families, will still face the full cut in their income from 2018. He also criticised cuts to solar subsidies and the resulting job cuts, which had earlier been a theme of Jeremy Corbyn's enquiries during prime ministers questions.

While it will remembered for the Mao moment, some commentators praised McDonnell for his performance. Responding to Budget statements is often seen as the most difficult job in parliament, says The Guardian, because the shadow chancellor does not get to see the document before his counterpart stands to deliver his speech.

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Others were much less impressed.

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