There was a tiny hint of desperation in the voice of George Osborne’s response to Ed Miliband’s rather effective attack over the Tories’ VAT rise yesterday.
‘The question Ed Milliband faces is this: if you’re not raising VAT, where are the extra £13bn of spending cuts coming from? The NHS? Schools?’
Now that deficit reduction moves dramatically from the stuff of theoretical political debate to real impact every time anyone fills the car with petrol, buys household goods or does a business transaction, the space opens for Labour to get back properly into the economic debate that is always at the centre of politics.
And there are two points in the Tory attack that have to be challenged. First, the line that every difficult decision they make is forced upon them because of the so-called mess left by Labour. ‘Clearing up the mess’ is an easier line to get over than ‘it is a lot more complicated than the Tories say, that Labour delivered considerable prosperity, that a problem started in the US created mayhem for the economy around the world, that Labour actually dealt with the fall out pretty well, and are now developing a strategy for growth and jobs alongside deficit reduction that would be more sensible and steady than Osborne’s kamikaze plans’. But it can be done over time, and yesterday has to be seen as the first step in laying down the building blocks of a bigger argument.
Second, the argument has to be made that the choices made by the Tories are exactly that – choices born of what they believe and the values they hold. They have thus far done a pretty good job in persuading people (and certainly the media) that the choices made are made of economic neccessity. They are not. They are choices made by a party that believes in shrinking the state, believes in a society based largely on privilege, and is using the economic circumstances, and the political cover of the Lib Dems in the coalition, to go for it.