Peter Hoskin

Two steps forward for the Tories, one step backwards for the Lib Dems

Two steps forward for the Tories, one step backwards for the Lib Dems
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Last week, the Tories strengthened their tax-cutting credentials with a smart policy on national insurance.  I'm sure you didn't miss it.  But one part of the recent Tory resurgence is, to my mind, being underplayed: they now have a much stronger message on government waste.  After all, the NI policy is being funded by cutting waste.  And then there was that spoof website which pulled the limelight onto Labour's wasted spending.  And then there are the interviews in which Tory frontbenchers – such as William Hague today – say stuff like:

"If there’s waste in government spending, which the Labour Government says there is, we should be saving the waste, not saying we’ll go on wasting it for several more years."

It's a punchy and persuasive argument.  But it's also very remiscent of the case the Lib Dems were making over a year ago.  Ignore the specifics about what waste is going to be cut, and which tax cuts it will be used to fund, and you'll find much the same argument in, say, Nick Clegg's speech to his party conference in 2008.  In that, Clegg says he wants to cut "£20bn of government spending that isn't working effectively," and then use that to "cut taxes for the people who need it most".  He even attacks the other parties for being "too flaky to take the tough choices to make tax cuts possible ... too weak to trim back on wasteful spending."

Why bring this up now?  Well, firstly, because I often think that Clegg deserves more credit for changing his party's traditional tax-and-spend approach to the public finances.  Not that every detail of Lib Dem fiscal policy is attractive, of course.  But there's much to admire in that speech above, as there is in Clegg's pledge not to ringfence any departmental spending.

But the main reason to mention the Lib Dems now is because they've recently rowed back from their strong position on waste – saying that to cut any public spending this year would be to risk the recovery.  This leaves the Tories as the only major party which, on the surface, is trying to prioritise tax cuts ahead of wasteful spending this year.  And that, in turn, is one of the most important distinctions to bear in mind as the election approaches.