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Tough day for Labour, but tough questions for Tories too

Posted on 10 December 2009 | 10:12am

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).

  • Charlie Wills

    Liked your tweet on Sky coverage yesterday. They are becoming Fox News even before they have what they are hoping will be a nice tame Tory government to do what they want on the broadcast policy agenda. I thought Darling did ok on a very tough pitch. I can’t explain Duckworth Lewis either but I know what it means

  • Trudi Fowler

    The reason the fundamentals haven’t changed is that the public think Labour have been in power for too long, but they don’t like the Tories. So it is definitely all to play for, to adopt your sporting analogy. I know nothing about cricket, and care less, but the Tories do seem to be lacking in confidence. They have been banking everything on the public thinking that the desire for change will be overwhelming, without thinking through what the change would entail. I am a former Labour voter who switched to Lib Dem last time but the more I see of the Tories the more tempted I am to go back to Labour.

  • Alison Stead

    Did you notice you got more reaction on FB and twitter to your criticism of BBC putting up running commentary, and about Sky’s bias, than you did about your defence of the chancellor? Maybe one chimed and the other didn’t?

  • jlocke13

    Brown actually believes that growth is going to solve the problem with government debt. They are now forecasting a growth rate of 3.5% a figure not even attained during the heady days of the Brown Boom…
    It’s possible, of course, that this fantasy will persuade voters to give Brown another chance next year,though I doubt it…
    Not that the Tories have any long-term solutions, since growth is also their fantasy…..

  • Phil McNally

    The papers are indeed unpleasant. The only supportive one is the Mirror.

  • Nick

    “No more boom and bust”

  • Mark \’Elvis\’ Wright

    George…you are the weakest link. Goodbye.

    On second thoughts, the more the public listen to Osbourne’s grating nasal whine (he sounds like a posh Ken Livingston) the more they’ll want to give him a slap and send him to bed without any supper.

  • Leo

    ‘…who do you trust to steer Britain from recession to recovery?’. Anyone but Brown. We are not only in a parlous position in absolute but also in relative terms. Even that would be bearable/more bearable if he and his cohorts were more humble about their abilities. By the way, there is an article in The Times today that funds for climate change are to be found by cutting funds for international aid. It is not a new point but Copenhagen makes it more than usually pertinent: those, you and the major political parties in the UK for example, who champion the fight against warming, whether they like it or not, are putting at risk the focus and funding for global problems that unequivocally exist for a future global problem that is inevitable only in the minds of those who are are closed to the debate.

  • Charlie

    AC your tribal defence of the undefendable is touching and is to be expected from you.

    In the real world however, a different view is taken: It now costs $85,000 to insure $10 million of UK debt against default – against just $24,000 for German debt. This multiple is at a record high. There is no other economic news about: this is all reaction to the Pre-Budget Report.

    As pointed out by George Osborne, The
    GOLDEN RULE: “NEVER TRUST A LABOUR GOVERNMENT WITH YOUR MONEY”
    has nevr been more clearly demonstrated.

  • Metrodeco

    Most pre-election budgets involve massive give-aways. At least we’re now in a position where a Government realises has avoided this easy trick because it realises the full seriousness of the work that needs to be done to fix the economy.

  • dwb790

    It always amazes me how sectors of the media get tranfixed on stories of limited interest. The “tory claims” headline dominated the Today programme and is still (at 3pm) the headline page on BBC website. It is a predictable repsonse at best to a minor part of the pre-budget statement. This is confirmed by scrolling down the page to the top ten “most popular – read” and it doesn’t even feature. So let’s move on and find a more substantial budget story of interest, like what would actually happen if Wisteria Dave’s mob get in. Everyone tells us this is going to happen so it may be of some interest!

  • Charlie Reynolds

    Your cheap shots on the personality traits of the tories or libdems show how weak the labour position is.

    We have a huge PSBR because of Gordon Brown and Labour. No one else. This is going to bring us to 1970s style cuts in public spending whoever is in power. I want to punish ‘Summerhouse Brown’ in the next election. The man who kept manipulating the figures while chancellor. My country is going to take a decade to recover from this and I don’t hear anyone blaming the tories.

    If it were not for the expenses saga, cameron would be on 70% by now I reckon.

    £36billion of cuts unexplained in the budget. I just wanna cry really.

  • betty curtis

    Tough day for Labour because of dishonest reporting & believing IFS stats

    Watched Will Hutton(economist)said”Darling had done well & he could see that Government believed unemployment would be a lot less in 2011. Therefore, That’s what Chancellor working towards & would mean more taxes to reduce deficit, So! nonsense to put out this figure of 36bn in cuts to come.

    Osborne & Cable haven’t a clue as the earlier reports state couldn’t organise a p–s up in a brewery! We will make sure they don’t get the chance to run the Country.

    C’mon the Fighters & Believers—“GAME ON”

  • Katharine T.

    Sounds like the cyclical nature of politics to me, but then, I guess if everyone thinks they have all the answers then they are welcome to enter politics to become Prime Minister and then change the world to suit their right answers.

  • s chapman

    AC,

    You mention why aren;t the Tories out of sight – part of the reasin is the lack of trust in all Politicians and spin doctors ex or otherwise.
    The question ” who do you trust to lead us out of recession ” is a perfect sweet-spot question from you.The answer is very clear to most people…if we are the only large economy that remains in recession then surely logically the conclusion is we are not providing the right solutions.I just can’t see your point about what can any other party offer – its so incredibly obvious that Gordon Brown has and continues to fail to lead our country anywhere.The debt boom’s rapid change into the debt hangover is breath-taking and GB must take responsibility and serve his country better as he always goes on about and go…and quickly.Its very simply a case of anyone BUT Labour and GB they failed us bigtime.

  • Alan Quinn

    I thought Darling could have been bolder, the banks still haven’t been reined in enough. We need a pan EU transaction tax,this will bring in billions and avoid some cuts, we need to hit nom doms hard and we need to stop UK firms paying tax abroad. Quite frankly the financiers got us into this mess and they will have to pay to get us out of it.
    It’s said defence will be hit hard so we need to agree with the ex defence chiefs and cancel the Trident replacement, the money can be diverted into other defence projects like the carriers to keep people in work.
    We cannot allow the poorest to be hit hard either the public won’t like this section suffering if financiers are still getting ill gotten gains.
    As we now own large parts of the banking system we could use them to start rebalancing the economy towards manufacturing be giving out long term loans to finance wind farms, the Severn Barrage and a national fibre optic broadband system and high speed rail links for starters.
    If the private sector can’t provide finance then the state has to.

    As you say the tories are all over the place because they are useless and they constantly have to recalculate their figures and have got each big call wrong.
    On the Duckworth Lewis thing, I’ve had my picture taken with Vera Duckworth at a fundraiser but which Lewis are we talking about?
    Is it Stephen Lewis (Blakey in On the Buses)????

  • jim brant

    Surprised that you haven’t yet commented on Chilcott. Not so much the event itself as the reporting thereof, where we are seeing exactly the same pattern as with Hutton. The reports are usually misleading, picking out only the potentially exciting (ie anti-government) bits and often misunderstanding what is reported anyway. The result is (and was) to condition public opinion to expect a particular outcome, and so to fuel the inevitable charge of ‘whitewash’ when the actual outcome is different. Unfortunately (!!!!) not everyone has my advantage of being retired and looking after a wife with severe dementia, and so having the time to watch the hearings live.

  • scott

    Alastair,
    you really are trying to defend the undefencable! Brown, and Brown ALONe is cupable for the trouble this country is in. He continued to spend more money than was coming in during the good years, thinking it would last for ever. Did it never enter his little bit of a brain that good times don’t last forever! His history doctorate should have taught him that they don’t last forever, and he certainly knows the political consequences of downturns. For such a clever man, he is remarkedly STUPID.

  • billgardner

    good work