Fraser Nelson

Playing politics with the public finances

Playing politics with the public finances
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It has started. The Labour attack unit is out today talking about a "Tory VAT rise" - as per Paddy Hennessy’s scoop. Osborne stated his (to me, relatively paltry) position on the deficit: that he’d reduce it faster than Labour but can’t say how much. The Labour attack unit keeps partying like its 1999 with the "Tory cuts" line, now augmented with a "Tory tax rise." Here are the words which the attack unit has crafted for Stephen Timms, chief secretary to the Treasury:

"George Osborne refuses to say what services he would cut or what taxes he would increase in order to cut the deficit 'further and faster' than Labour.  If he halves the deficit even just one year faster than Labour, he needs find a further £26 billion - equal to half the schools budget or a Tory VAT rise from 17.5 to 23%. He refused to rule that out today. And that's before he finds the cash for his £10 billion of tax giveaways to the wealthy few."

Let’s set aside the fact that the £10bn figure is concocted, or the fact that families are included under the subheading of “wealthy few”. It is Labour who last week published a Pre-Budget Report suggesting £35 billion of cuts. Where are they going to come from? We don’t know, because Darling has decided/been told not to have a Comprehensive Spending Review. But Timms is still made to say this:

"The Tories need to come clean on their choices.  They have already refused to back our protection for schools and police, what else are they going to cut to make their sums add up?"

You can just imagine this last line written by Balls himself, which is why he ordered Darling not to cut the schools budget – proof that the PBR was written not in response to the national finances, but to allow party political attack lines like the above. The gall, the sheer gall, of a government which has just announced a £178bn "black hole" in the budget this year, a £176bn "black hole" next year, talking about sums not adding up is simply breathtaking. As I say in my News of the World column today , Britain may yet go bust because Brown’s sums don’t add up. And they talk about the Tories.

But they do so because they will calculate that the Tory attack machine does not function – so they can get away with it. This Timms quote is the Brown/Balls attack unit seeing what they can get away with. How I would love Osborne to lambast them for this today: to point out the extent of the Labour cuts hidden in the PBR, to count the ways in which Darling’s sums don’t add up.  But, for reasons that I can’t work out, the Tory strategy is to sit tight, shut up and don’t say rude things. The result is clear: as James blogged recently, they are allowing themselves to be defined by Labour.