Sean O'Grady: All the candidates were economical with the truth

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Indy Politics

Judged by the brutal test of whether they made their numbers add up, all the leaders failed badly. Indeed, in this debate on economics, stats hardly got a look in between the soundbites, the "I met a..." anecdotes, and carefully rehearsed jibes.

None would say where they would find the £52.5bn (David Cameron), £44bn (Gordon Brown) or £34.4bn (Nick Clegg) shortfalls in their spending plans identified by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on Wednesday. For the purposes of comparison, by the way, the defence budget is £40bn, we spend £22bn on transport, and the Scottish government budget is £35bn. OK, enough stats.

So we are none the wiser about which public services will be cut and by how much, and what it will mean on the ground. You will just have to wait and see how much of an army we have left in a few years, if your local library will be closed, how many child protection officers will be getting the sack, how bad the potholes in your street get, and so on. Mr Brown didn't mention that he's already taking £15bn out of the economy this year; Mr Clegg didn't highlight that he wants to abolish higher rate tax relief on pensions contribution; Mr Cameron didn't deny he might cut the schools budget.

The leaders also said precious little about some of the more obvious tax increases they might be forced into imposing: a rise in VAT, for example, inevitable in the view of many economists was conspicuous by its absence. In a few months' time I suspect it will be quite a talking point.

Most of the debate about the public finances was dominated by what are trivial matters in national terms, but are powerfully symbolic. The "tax on jobs" that Mr Cameron accuses Mr Brown of wouldn't make much difference to the economy either way; it would knock about 0.1 per cent of GDP, against growth of about 1 per cent expected this year. It wouldn't drive us back into recession, but it would mean 30,000 public sector job cuts, and it may not be a good idea to take it out of the economy at such a critical moment.

The inheritance tax cuts for the richest 3,000 estates that Mr Brown kept asking Mr Cameron about is worth a mere £3.1bn or so, almost irrelevant. Mr Clegg's plan to remove those earning less than £10,000 from income tax might have more impact on consumer spending, but overall his plans are neutral.

Hearteningly, all agreed on boosting manufacturing, and Mr Cameron didn't choose to scaremonger about a hung parliament and the markets; but it was obviously too much to expect any of them to even hint at the benefits to an economy of immigration.

It could be, as the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King says, that whoever wins this election will be out of power for a generation because of how tough the fiscal austerity will have to be. But, apart from Mr Brown, they can blame "the other lot" for getting the country into the mess (as could a Labour successor to Mr Brown); they can claim their fresh comprehensive spending review has yielded new cuts they'd never dreamed of; they can blame a coalition partner for really nasty cuts; and they can tell us that they warned us there would be pain.

We also know full well that none of them is telling us the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Maybe that's why we find it so hard to choose between them.