Pious generalities won't do. Osborne has to get specific01 October 2009
The conference season is upon us, and is about to produce the clear blue water that must exist if voters are to be faced with a choice, rather than an echo, come spring. Not on crime: the prime minister told his conference that he is against it. So is Cameron.
Not in the foreign policy area. Gordon Brown has promised to continue the fight to deny terrorists a base in Afghanistan, but is also talking about doing a Basra - withdrawing troops from combat areas and redeploying them to training missions. He has reasons, one good, one not. The good one is that British troops have done more than their share, and paid a high price while other Nato forces cower in their barracks. The not so good one is that he does not want to spend the money needed to provide his troops with proper life-saving equipment.
Not much different to the Tories. Enthusiasm for Trident in Tory circles is at low, Mandelsonian levels, and the party's leaders sound like the leftwing American Democrats who want to make their support contingent on seeing an Afghanistan endgame, timetable and other things it is impossible to develop in such a rapidly changing environment.
But when it comes to domestic policy, voters can look for some differences. Irving Kristol, the great American neoconservative thinker who passed away last week, once noted that conservatives can counter promises of leftwing spending programmes with promises of lower taxes - choose between a new entitlement and keeping more of your own money. That is about how things are lining up in Britain.
Brown made clear that he really has no intention of cutting spending: a new innovation fund, more money for schools, more internships, and more taxes. Especially on those at "the very top" - you know, the ones who create jobs. And national insurance contributions to go up - increasing the tax on jobs. It is the sort of fiscal madness that only Brown seems capable of these days.
One wonders what Lord Mandelson, the former apostle of limited government, was thinking as he joined in the applause and standing ovation. Gordon has always hankered after a 50% tax rate on high earners, but all his huffing and puffing could not blow Tony Blair's resistance down. Now he is free to do that. This is a man, after all, who has never met a programme he didn't consider not worthy of expansion, no matter how low the benefit-to-cost ratio.
But where does all this leave Ed Balls, the schools minister and bete noir of Tory pundits, the man about whom a kind word can fill my mailbox with hate messages? While Gordon says he will spend still more on education, Balls has announced that he plans to spend less, preserving what have come to be called frontline services by cutting back on administrators. Perhaps Balls has been mugged by fiscal reality, while the prime minister has not yet come to grips with the dire state of the public finances. Give Balls credit: he's the only politician willing to get specific about savings. Of course, it is legitimate to wonder why these savings did not occur to the schools minister sooner - £2bn saved would have been much appreciated by voters, even when times were flush.
The prime minister's plan to spend and spend, and tax and tax, creates the clear blue water that will give David Cameron and company the opportunity to offer voters an alternative: spending cuts of the sort laid out by Reform and other thinktanks, tax increases that do not stifle economic growth, and tax cuts and reforms that increase Treasury revenues by increasing the incentive to work, start businesses, and innovate.
Pious generalities won't do. The Tory party conference will provide George Osborne with an opportunity to be specific about his party's plans - it's no good to say he won't know the magnitude of the problem until he sees the books. The shadow chancellor doesn't have to see the books to know that the problem an incoming government will face won't be solved by a few pence saved here, a bit of a tax rise there. He cannot, of course, predict the rate at which the economy will be growing in the spring, if indeed it is. But if he can present a budget one month after the general election, as he says he will, he must know now which programmes are candidates for cuts, and he should know the magnitude of any cuts he plans so he can tell voters before the election. Budgets can, after all, be adjusted to accommodate major changes in circumstance.
The prime minister has thrown down the gauntlet. He is right that he took the steps that should have been taken to prevent the recession from worsening, or probably did - economics is not a sufficiently precise science to allow us to give more than two cheers for bank bailouts and massive deficits. But he may well be wrong to expect voters, given a choice of more spending and higher taxes - from a man who favours such profligacy in good times and bad - or spending cuts, lower deficits and a prospect of lower taxes, will opt for the former.