Labour's press conference this morning was a classic example of a party struggling to both have its cake and eat it. Not only did we get Gordon Brown, as expected - but he was introduced, and joined, by Alistair Darling and Peter Mandelson. Three heavy hitters to bash out one message: that the Tories' national insurance plans are a "threat to the recovery". Or make that one-and-a-half messages, if you include the claim that the Tories couldn't realistically expect to make the efficiency savings to fund their NI cut this year. There is, claimed the Labour triumverate, a "black hole" where the Tories' tax and spending proposals should be.
And this was where the cake-eating came into play – with a vengeance. Many of the assembled journos asked: well, if there are efficiencies to be made, why not make them this year? Why wait until next? To which, Darling replied that Labour are making a batch of efficiency savings this year, and that they've got £15 billion's worth in line for next. And so the question came again: what's wrong with the Tories efficiency savings this year, then? To which, Brown replied that the Tory plans aren't detailed enough, and that they would wreak damage on "frontline services". Newsnight's Paul Mason honed in on the "not detailed enough" angle, asking how Labour could say this when they've scheduled £18bn of cuts for the next few years – and we don't know where the axe will fall because there hasn't been a spending review. To which, Mandelson replied ... well, you get the picture.
Far from turning the heat back onto the Tories, the whole press conference demonstrated how Labour are struggling in the face of the Tories' national insurance proposal. As dividing lines go, "smart efficiency savings next year – vs – horrible, horrible money in your pocket now" is always going to be a tough sell. But that's the pitch that Brown & Co. are trying to make today.
P.S. As I said in my earlier blog, Labour are mixing a few different figures to come up with different totals for Tory efficiency plans: £6bn, £12bn, £27bn, etc. I'll post about this later.