ONE of the Irish writer Brian O’Nolan’s finest creations was the “catechism of cliché”. An occasional feature of his long-running Irish Times column, O’Nolan defined cliché as “mortified language”, a “phrase that has become fossilised, its component words deprived of their intrinsic light and meaning by incessant usage”.

His catechism aimed to be a “unique ­compendium of all that is nauseating in contemporary writing. Compiled without regard to expense or the feelings of the ­public”. We could do with one today.

Journalism often thrives on cliché: ­clichéd writing, clichéd thinking, clichéd characters. Politics too. Clichés let you think in shorthand. They’re a phrasebook of pre-digested ideas that are both easy on the tummy and untesting for your ­frontal lobes.

One pernicious feature of the most ­politically effective is they can stop you from thinking properly about what you’re consuming. Like butter popcorn in a ­bucket, they’re all too easy to gobble ­mindlessly down.

Your political cliché of the week is ­“uncosted policy commitments”. In the wake of last weekend’s ambivalent ­by-election results – and the spin and ­wildfires which followed them – Keir ­Starmer has doubled down on his ­commitment to not to commit to “uncosted” increases in public spending if Labour wins the next general election. The word “uncosted” is meant to conjure up images of political profligacy: stick the house on red, sod the cost, blow the national credit card.

But contemplate this political cliché a bit, and you’ll realise a few things. First, ­“uncosted commitments” does not mean “unaffordable commitments”. If someone told you “I’d take you out for dinner, but unfortunately I cannot make any ­uncosted commitments at this time” – you’d be ­justified in reaching for the menu and ­asking them about what prawn cocktail budget was available.

The obvious answer to suggestions you’re making “uncosted” political commitments is to properly budget your policies and ­decide how important poor kids are to you. Or seen as we’re in in the land of ­political cliché – it’s an opportunity to tell the ­electorate you’ve “fully-costed” this policy and to make clear to the public that they would be a priority if you win office.

This strategy repeatedly surfaced ­during Jeremy Corbyn’s stint as Labour leader. Mindful of the party’s perceived vulnerabilities, an outsize effort was made to be seen to be doing the due ­diligence on public spending.

But instead of that, Sir Keir prefers to give us the diffident accountant’s line that he hasn’t got around to doing his sums yet on this aspect of Britain’s public finances, tactically implying that working through the costs and liabilities would somehow be more irresponsible than remaining strategically vague about what you’d do with the UK government’s £1100 billion budget. Exponents think this represents “mature politics.” In reality, I think it shows you how trapped UK Labour ­remain in Tory caricatures of their last stint in office.

When Gordon Brown left ­Downing Street 13 years ago, his outgoing chief ­secretary to the Treasury left his ­successor Phil Hammond a note ­reading “I am afraid there is no money” left. ­Intended as ­gallows humour – or a ­private joke ­between political professionals – Liam Byrne’s scribbled note was promptly seized on and published by the Tories as an admission of Labour’s ­financial ­incompetence justifying years of ­austerity.

David Cameron even carried a copy around with him during the 2015 general election half a decade later – so ­powerful a symbol had Byrne’s letter become of ­Labour’s perceived financial ­vulnerabilities.

Remarkably, the crass gag of 2010 has now matured into opposition policy. In all seriousness, Starmer ally Lucy ­Powell cheerfully told the media last week there’s “no money left” to reform Tory social ­security entitlements, which cut off ­public support from parents with more than two kids.

As economics, this is illiterate. As ­politics – it shows Labour are still stuck in the gluetrap of their opponents’ ­making, so nervous about suggestions of fiscal recklessness that they’d rather keep us guessing about what they would and would not do if – as seems likely – they displace the Tories at the next general election.

I don’t underestimate Starmer’s challenges. This being the United Kingdom, “fully costing” your policies isn’t just about whether you’ve actually done your sums and the double entry accounting for their upsides and downsides.

Vibes are much more important than the arithmetic for most of the British ­media. The perceived affordability of more socially democratic policies are ­contingent – not on the due diligence ­underpinning them – but on who is ­promoting the policy.

This is why the Tories – when a more ­social democratic impulse takes them, like the Covid furlough scheme, or the ­temporary support for high energy bills – have generally been spared the ­outsize scepticism visited on the official ­opposition proposing similar policies.

BUT this iteration of the Labour Party remains a prisoner of Tory rhetoric, determined to within the constraints and suspicions of what passes for public life in the UK, terrified of challenging them.

Of course, when it comes to social ­security, it isn’t quite so straightforward. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy the idea that the Labour right is full of folk who’re only held back from repealing the benefit cap policy by squeamishness about its ­affordability against the backdrop of so many other demands on the public purse.

Why? Because Britain’s nasty ­Benefit Street culture has its origins in New ­Labour’s triangulations around social welfare. The Conservatives have ­certainly built on these foundations, but it was ­successive Labour politicians who sought political capital from cultivating cultures of official suspicion, promoting ­discourses of benefit scroungers, and crackdowns and sanctions.

When they had the opportunity ­directly to shape this aspect of government policy, the Labour Right consistently chose to weaponise official and public mistrust of the beneficiaries of social security. Humiliation, scrutiny, justification, sanctions – all of these ugly impulses were mobilised.

For every Labour politician who thinks the benefit cap is a discriminatory and officious policy – and there are several – there’s a cynical Starmerite who thinks these feckless people have too many kids and shouldn’t be encouraged to think the taxpayer will support them. If Labour wins the opportunity to form the next UK government, there’s no reason to ­assume the first grouping will win out in the ­internal conflict to come.

Foregrounding the reforms Labour will – and will not – commit to making in the social security system also ­exposes uncomfortable contradictions in the ­Scottish politics. You don’t need to be a keen observer of Holyrood to know that Scottish Labour has spent the last ­decade demanding higher public spending in more or less every department of devolved government.

Since the Scottish Government ­introduced the Scottish child payment, Anas Sarwar has demanded hikes in ­every budget. SNP objections to the ­two-child cap on universal credit ­payments have consistently been met with Labour ­suggestions that if the Nats really cared about the policy – then they should put up or shut up, finding more and more money to mitigate against Treasury cuts.

Obliged to contend with Starmer’s ­havers while somehow blaming the ­two-child policy on the SNP, Sarwar’s contortions have been the envy of Harry Houdini during the last fortnight. It is a foretaste of things to come.

The opposition logic Scottish Labour have used since 2007 will be almost ­impossible to square with Starmer’s safety-first, cliché-ridden change-without-change pitch for Downing Street. This is just the first spasm of many.