Darling, Osborne and Cable: So who was the gloomiest of them all?

Voters have now heard from all three men vying for the keys to the Treasury. Sean O'Grady gives his verdict
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Indy Politics

No more "bread and circuses", then. Alistair Darling, George Osborne and Vince Cable have spent the past three weeks vying to see who can smile the least, sound the most miserable and promise the most savage of spending cuts. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the gloomiest of them all?

Alistair Darling

His most significant announcement came during the Tory conference – a public pay freeze for 40,000 senior public servants in 2010-11, plus zero to 1 per cent pay rises for 700,000 doctors, dentists and prison officers – but that will only cut the deficit by a few billions, in the context of a £90bn structural deficit. Improving child care for the poor by restricting it for the rich is neutral; the promises on cancer treatment are fiscally insignificant, as is free personal care at home for those with the "highest needs" because it will be drawn so restrictively.

The pledge to abandon ID cards offers a potential saving of £5bn at the absolute outside, but probably much less, as most has been spent. The "Fiscal Responsibility Act" could be abolished with a one clause bill in a morning.

As the planned Comprehensive Spending Review has been cancelled we won't find out much more about the £36bn of spending cuts implied by Labour's current headline plans in the Pre-Budget Report next month. Mr Darling is likely to confirm his £9bn tax hike next year, the 50p rate, higher national insurance, VAT back to 17.5 per cent, plus the end of the stamp duty holiday and scrappage scheme.

Gloom rating: Proof of PG Wodehouse's observation that it is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.

George Osborne

Mr Osborne did indeed show how he planned to save £3.2bn from his version of a public pay freeze, limited to those on a salary of more than £18,000. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, an independent think tank, says that the Tory figure on savings made by raising the age for state pension eligibility is "rather too high" at £13bn.

In any case it won't kick in until 2016. No-one knows whether the £3bn savings from slashing Whitehall red tape and quangos and increasing the price of a pint in Commons bars will ever materialise. Capping public pensions will also take years. On the other hand Mr Osborne wants to cut inheritance tax, improve marriage tax incentives and link state pensions to earnings – about £1bn a pop per year. However, even if we take Mr Osborne's word for his £7bn of savings, he will still need to find about £38bn per annum by 2013 from spending cuts and tax rises if he wants to eliminate the structural deficit – more than the schools budget. No wonder he doesn't want to be seen smiling.

Gloom rating: The sunshine keeps breaking through.

Vince Cable

The Liberal Democrats are the most ambitious party in terms of how bad they think the public finances are and thus what needs to be done to fix them – hence the use of the word "savage" to describe their cuts. Mr Cable has indicated that he thinks the structural deficit is more like 8 per cent of GDP than the 6.4 per cent stated by the Treasury, implying a total adjustment of £113bn per annum, a truly staggering sum equating to around a fifth of the public spending total.

However Mr Cable has offered lots of detail on how he will get some of the way there: a complete public pay freeze, cancellation of the Trident replacement and the typhoon fighter bomber, a "radical review" of public sector pensions, abolition of the child trust fund... but the sums still don't add up. A costly pledge to lift the tax threshold to £10,000 and the "aspiration" to abolish tuition fees remain.

Gloom rating: No one does doom like the lugubrious Mr Cable.

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