Judging by the instant commentary I witnessed yesterday, I don’t suppose the papers will make pretty reading for the government. I haven’t looked.
But Alistair Darling’s statement throws up some difficult questions for the Opposition too, and their difficulties in answering them were immediately clear.
The public are fully aware of the depth and scale of the recession. The Tories have sought to pin all the blame for it on Labour. But if the public bought that line, the Tories would be out of sight in the polls. That they’re not says something about their lack of appeal. It also says something about the public’s ability to understand that all governments are having to make difficult decisions to deal with the fall-out of the economic crisis. Just look at Ireland’s budget if you want really eye-watering tough choices.
But the public are also alert to inconsistencies in political positioning and these were on display in plenty as the Tories sought to exploit Labour’s difficult decisions.
Shadow Chancellor George Osborne spoke of it being not a pre-Budget report, but a pre-election budget. I have been involved in pre-election budgets. They tend not to involve hikes in national insurance and cuts in public spending. This was not an overly political statement.
Later in the day, Osborne’s deputy Philip Hammond was all over the place in trying not to answer the question about whether they would reverse the NI rise – I think we can safely assume they won’t – and whether such a move was more or less a priority than the commitment to cut inheritance tax for the wealthy.
They will also have to reach a settled judgement on how to handle the bankers and their bonuses, as yet not clear.
They were sending out inconsistent signals on spending. On the one hand, Labour was endangering public services and seeking to conceal the scale of the cuts. On the other, they felt the government should be doing more to cut the budget deficit – ie cut faster and more deeply – but nor will they say where these Tory cuts might fall. I’m afraid the old ‘we’ll have to wait to see the state of the books before we can decide’ will not sustain them to the election.
So for all the talk yesterday, and all the endless negative blather of the punditocracy, I’m not sure the political fundamentals have shifted much. The central questions remain – who do you trust to steer Britain from recession to recovery? And do you think we should continue to see investment as part of the plan for growth, or go for faster deeper cuts now?
It is also significant, and being noted more often, that Osborne and Co made the wrong calls on all the big moments of this recession so they do not have much capital in the bank of credibility should a few more difficult calls come before an election, and they get those wrong too.
Given the nature of the political and economic wicket, the Tories ought to be feeling like a Test side declaring with seven wickets left, and a lead of 500 runs as they send Labour in to bat on a turning pitch. Instead they have the look of a team leading in a one day match and hoping the rain will come in and it’ll all get settled according to the Duckworth Lewis rules.
(Apologies to non-cricket fans who may have to google Duckworth Lewis, but it is too early in the morning for me to explain).