David Behrens: Corbyn’s back-of-a-fag-packet arithmetic will be his undoing

Jeremy Corbyn.
Jeremy Corbyn.
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I suppose one should admire Labour’s honesty. They lost the election and their manifesto is lining the cage of someone’s budgie now, so they didn’t have to admit this week that they had made up large swathes of it. They could have raked over a layer of Trill and hoped no-one would notice.

The fact that they were still trying to prop up its empty promises exposed a degree of guile unusual even in politics.

I said after the election that Jeremy Corbyn would, sooner or later, be exposed as the department store Santa who is suddenly told he must pay for the toys himself. It happened sooner than I thought, and he exposed himself.

He did it on television last Sunday. Labour, he insisted to Andrew Marr, had never promised to write off student debt. It was an “aspiration”, not a guarantee.

An aspiration is one day being able to drive for more than a few hours in an electric car without having to recharge it, as the Government now wishes. Since no-one can make a phone, let alone a vehicle, that doesn’t run dry before you can get it home, I doubt that it will happen – but not as much as I doubt Mr Corbyn’s ability to produce a treasure chest from a castle in the air.

His popularity during the spring campaign was fuelled to a large degree by the sweetly naive optimism of younger voters, and his policy on student finance was a shrewd and calculated ploy to literally buy their loyalty. That is the only sense in which it was calculated.

There is no more emotive issue with the young, the best of whom are now saddled with debt before they are 20 and with trying to repay it when they are manacled and mortgaged, than tuition fees. These young voters took Labour at its word when it said that their £9,250 a year university fees would be done away with. It would not have taken too many more of them to have put Mr Corbyn inside Number 10.

For the record, this is what the Labour leader told the NME magazine back in May. “I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after,” he said, adding, pointedly, “I will deal with it.”

The meaning of that is pretty clear to me. He was not speaking about his commitment to abolish student fees in the future; he was saying that those who had incurred them in the present and the recent past should not have to pay them back.

Yet he now tells us that was not what he meant. He was unaware of the size of the collective debt, he told Marr.

The meaning of that is pretty clear to me, too: he had no idea what he was talking about. He was saying only what he knew his audience wanted to hear.

His excuse was that the manifesto had been written in a hurry because the election was a surprise. The party, he admitted, had not known at the time how much its commitments, if that is what they were, would cost.

That raises the rather vexed question: what else did he not know the cost of?

Labour planned, for instance, to nationalise the utilities using £250bn of borrowing, but it made no attempt to break down the cost. Had it done so, it wouldn’t have seemed such a fortune; the water companies alone are worth £66bn.

It is the same back-of-a-fag-packet arithmetic that destroyed the credibility of Gordon Brown and Jim Callaghan made Labour unelectable for a generation.

Undergraduates, though indebted, are clever people. It’s how they got to university in the first place. Leafy south west Sheffield, the building societies tell us, has one of the highest concentrations of them in Britain, and the electorate there took its revenge by voting out of office the former MP, Nick Clegg, for what they saw as his betrayal over their tuition fees.

It will not be lost on those voters this week that Jeremy Corbyn took them all for mugs with implied promises he should have known he couldn’t keep.

He did so by exploiting his position as a government outsider, a supposed man of his word who operated somehow on a higher moral plane than the rest of Westminster. His retreat exposes him as the most mendacious of them all.

But he has burned his bridges now with the student community – as we shall see at the next re-sit.