Matthew Dancona

Darling needs to blow economic dog-whistle

Darling needs to blow economic dog-whistle
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Whatever the economic equivalent of a “dog-whistle” is, Alistair Darling needs to blow on it loud and clear today. The briefings and counter-briefings from Numbers Ten and Eleven in recent weeks have made clear the rift between a Chancellor who wants at least to acknowledge fiscal reality, and a Prime Minister who wants to keep spending and borrowing, though the Heavens fall. Darling needs to remain notionally loyal to his boss but make it clear to those looking for the right signals that he grasps the true nature of the crisis and understands that this Budget is about more than establishing political dividing-lines against the Tories.

The PM has already won the day to the extent that the trailer soundbite for this Budget is “invest to grow” – a classic New Labour formulation containing within it the delusion that all public spending is “investment” and the no-less ridiculous implication that Labour public spending leads to growth. Never mind the £1 trillion public debt: why stop the spending party now? Let’s keep the bar open and the taps of public money flowing freely.

The trouble, to persist with the analogy, is that the bar is running out of beer and the brewery of the gilts market is proving increasingly reluctant to replenish supplies. That same market will be looking today for evidence that the Government recognises the scale of the problem and has put behind it the epic fantasies of the Pre-Budget Report (growth to return in third quarter of 2009 etc). That means a clear signal from Mr Darling that he is willing to confront the scale of the borrowing crisis and to start to take the necessary measures – not distant tax rises that will raise no money, but genuine savings in public expenditure.

I doubt very much he is up to the task. He is up against a Prime Minister in the last-chance saloon who has nothing to lose and – as Damian McBride and Derek Draper recently revealed – quite a heavyhanded way of dealing with those who cross him. More to the point, it is intrinsically hard for a Labour Chancellor to stand up and say: time to make cuts, folks, and lots of them. But that is what is required. If Chancellor Darling can’t do it, the task will fall to Chancellor Osborne. Lucky George.