David Prosser: The debates are over but the real economic argument is just beginning

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The Independent Online

Outlook The European Union's economic and monetary affairs commissioner Olli Rehn was careful not to plant his size 10 boots all over the British election yesterday, noting only that the "first and foremost challenge" for the winner will be to come up with "a convincing, ambitious programme of fiscal consolidation". Still, the latest economic forecasts that Mr Rehn was presenting did rather give the lie to some of the themes of this election campaign.

Accepting the idea, for example, that the Tories will be much tougher on the deficit and much more quickly, has suited the campaigns of both the main political parties. Yet the European Commission points out that Alistair Darling's Budget provided for a big reduction in borrowing as soon as the 2011-12 financial year, thanks to "the combined effects of better economic conditions and unprecedented restraint in discretionary expenditure".

In other words, Labour is already making a start on reducing borrowing, even if, like the Tories, it has yet to spell out the detail department by department.

Similarly, the idea that Britain heads the EU borrowing league table and thus that a hung parliament delaying deficit reduction could see us fall prey to a Greek-style crisis within weeks is rather debunked by the commission's statistics. Yes, we'll borrow more than any other EU nation this year, but we start with a little more headroom. Our total debt is currently below the EU average, and lower than that of either France or Germany. Even after this year's monstrous deficit, we'll still only be the seventh most indebted nation in the EU. We have a little time to sort out the public finances.

What else does the EC think? Well, it points out that credit conditions in the UK do now seem to be slowly easing. It may have been in the interests of all three political parties to bash the banks for failing to lend more, but the commission seems to think this is what they have been doing.

On growth, it puts the likely GDP figures for next year at 2 per cent, well below the Treasury's forecasts, on which all the parties' projections depend.

In addition, the commission also points out that remaining outside the euro has allowed the UK to benefit from sterling depreciation, a debate that rarely came up during the campaign at all.

None of this is to accuse any one political party of economic incompetence – or competence, for that matter. What is clear, however, is that much of the discussion of the past few weeks, on the economy in any case, has been a phoney argument, framed around a context that suited all the protagonists. Tomorrow, the real debate begins.

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