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Rachel Reeves was never going to miss the open goal left by the Tories | Rachel Reeves


Rachel Reeves can rarely have had an easier gig. The shadow chancellor stood up to speak at Labour’s conference with the pound under pressure and rumours swirling that the Bank of England was about to announce an emergency increase in interest rates.

Labour has a recurring struggle to portray itself as the party of economic competence. Famously, Denis Healey dashed to Blackpool in 1976 to make an impassioned – but not entirely successful – appeal for conference’s support for tough measures during a previous sterling crisis.

It was all rather different this year. Reeves, a former Bank of England economist, was presented with an open goal thanks to Kwasi Kwarteng’s badly received mini-budget and she was determined not miss it.

In Liverpool, Reeves could market herself as the chancellor-in-waiting who would sort out a mess bequeathed by the Tories: higher borrowing, higher imported inflation and higher mortgages. Trickle down economics was a very simple idea and a very wrong one, she added.

Reeves is not the most charismatic public speaker, but high-flown oratory was not needed on this occasion. She had two linked themes: that Labour would run the economy more responsibly than the current government, and that it could do so while being the party of social justice.

The big announcement was that a Labour government would reverse Kwarteng’s scrapping of the 45% rate of income tax paid by the highest earners and spend the £2bn raised on extra doctors, nurses, midwifes and health visitors. Had the chancellor not announced his tax break for those earning more than £150,000, Reeves would have been forced to find another way to fund her health pledge, something that was clearly planned long before the mini-budget.

This was a speech light on specific policies.

There was a commitment that a future Labour government would ask the Low Pay Commission to set the minimum wage at a level that reflected the cost of living. There was an announcement that Labour would set up a national economic council made up of representatives of government, industry and unions, a revival of the tripartite approach pioneered in the early 1960s and scrapped by John Major three decades later.

But Labour’s judgment is that next year’s conference will be the time to unveil manifesto pledges ahead of a likely 2024 election.

Some obvious questions were also left unanswered. Labour would not reverse the government’s cut in the 20% rate of income tax or the decision to scrap the increase in national insurance contributions that took effect in April, but it has not said how it would pay for these commitments. Nor has it said how it would pay for a freeze on energy bills beyond the first six months of a cap.

But for now, it doesn’t need to. It is the government that is borrowing tens, and perhaps even hundreds, of billions extra to keep energy bills down and pay for tax cuts. And it is the Conservative party, after 12 years in power, that owns Britain’s economic mess.

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