9 December 2009: Pre-Budget Report 2009 forecasts Public Sector Net Borrowing of £176 billion, and Public Sector Net Debt of £986 billion, in 2010-11.
10 December 2009: Alistair Darling puts in a bizarre performance on the Today programme, claiming that the PBR implies that departmental budgets would remain “pretty much flat.”
10 December 2009: The IFS works out that the PBR implies departmental budget cuts of around 19 percent over three years.
9 January 2010: In an interview with the Times, Alistair Darling admits that a tough spending review will see £57 billion worth of spending cuts and tax rises. He adds: "Many departments will have less money in the next few years."
Spot anything, CoffeeHousers? Yep, Darling has gone from saying that departmental budgets would remain "pretty much flat" to saying that departments will face hefty cuts, and all within a few weeks.
This is Labour's problem right now. While Darling's honesty is to be welcomed – applauded, even – his party's internal power struggles have confused their fiscal message beyond repair. Cuts have been off, on, off (but 'on' if you look at the small print), on, off – and now they're on again. Will the public trust a party whose message is as divided as its Cabinet? I wouldn't bet on it.
Meanwhile, the Tories will be looking on in glee. They may have only started calling for cuts last June – and they've still got some way to go – but at least they've been consistent in that message since then. Darling's admission gives them opportunity for plenty of "we told you so" politics between now and the election.