Peter Hoskin

Osborne must ask: why trust the party which ran up the credit card bill in the first place?

Osborne must ask: why trust the party which ran up the credit card bill  in the first place?
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Public sector net borrowing, public sector net debt, total managed expenditure, departmental expenditure limits ... zzzzz.  One of the main reasons why Labour has been able to fashion an economic narrative, against all odds, is because they can rely on some pretty esoteric language.  Thus debt becomes interchangeable with deficit, and cuts can be hidden under layers and layers of different spending metrics.  Perhaps more than anything, this almost-casual deception is Brown's greatest skill.

Which is why it's encouraging that the Tories have tried to demystify some of the fiscal debate, putting it into language that everyone can follow.  They've set out their "more for less" argument by referring to the practices of supermarkets.  And, this week, Cameron has been pushing the need for early spending cuts by relating it to someone hitting their credit card – why wait to get your finances in order?  Depending on your politics, you might say that the Tories are just being misleading in a different way.  But, at the very least, voters will be able to understand the Tory position – before making up their minds on it.

George Osborne should certainly follow this more colloquial approach during the Chancellors' TV debate tomorrow.  If you're going to be given an opportunity to connect with the public, well, then, you've got to make sure that you actually connect with the public.  But, it must be said, that this isn't without its dangers.

As Evan Davis demonstrated the other day, Osborne is most vulnerable to the charge that the Tories' fiscal plans aren't all that different from Labour's.  Based on what the two parties say, the deficit (or annual overspend) won't be much lower under a Tory government, and neither will the overall debt burden.  Or, to put into Cameron-esque language: the Tories will hit the national credit card almost as hard as Labour promises to.

This is where Osborne has to be on his toes.  He must, to my mind, admit that the debt burden will keep on rising for the foreaseeable future – but he has to pin all the blame for this onto Brown and Darling, who have left the public finances in such a mess that overspending is unavoidable over the next Parliament.  And then he has to ask a very straightforward question: "Yes, Labour and the Conservatives both say that they will reduce the annual overspend (although we say we'll do it quicker), but why should you trust the party which ran up the monstrous credit card bill in the first place?"

In the end, the more Osborne can make the Tories seem like an external auditor brought into clear up an irresponsible party's mess, the more likely he is to come out on top tomorrow evening.