Simon Carr: Who's telling the truth? I've no idea

Sketch: Ball and Gove accused each other of quoting misleading figures. We were all misled
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The Independent Online

Now I can say without shame – no, not even embarrassment – that I've no idea what's going on. It was in Education questions – or whatever the hell they're calling it now. Throughout the first part of the the session, ministers had been making noises we were meant to interpret as "Tory cuts versus Labour investment." If you vote for the Conservatives it'll be back to slavery in the public service, capital punishment in schools and Thatcher's axe taken to public spending.

Then Ed Balls stood up to announce he was making "savings" of £500m and this amounted to a 7 per cent cut in his budget. A what? A seven per cent what? At least he didn't phrase it as an increase of minus seven per cent. But it was the first time I'd heard the word "cut" from someone like him.

But wasn't his budget "ringfenced"? That is, untouchable? To be increased, even? Perhaps I'd nodded off since the last Budget, but education was surely protected. No cuts for education. Only Tories make cuts for kids.

It's too hard to tell any more. They were, he and Michael Gove, each accusing the other of quoting misleading figures. We were all misled. But, as I have come to realise, it is what we are for.

There was an ongoing argument about a factlet from Gove. He's been saying that the desirable three As at A level is achieved by more Etonians than from the whole school population who get free school meals. This, Balls says, is Gove "quoting figures he knows to be untrue". Sixth form colleges have been left out of the equation, he says. And maybe he's right. Whom would you prefer to believe?

He also says Gove's policy for more, smaller schools is "a free market experiment for lowering standards". I don't think that's the primary goal, in fact. And he also said that standards in schools had been rising inexorably since I forget when. Standards had never been higher. Everyone knows that simply isn't true.

As David Davis reminded the House – in a recent primary school maths test for 155 only one of them got all the questions right. And it was teachers doing the test, not the children.

So, who's telling the truth about public spending, the crunch, the deficit?

The Institute of Fiscal Studies suggests that most departments will be facing cuts of between 18 and 24 per cent. For the Ministry of Defence that is like "no longer employing the Army".

The truth is that we have no experience of cuts. Thatcher the Axe only managed to slow the rate of increase in public spending. Cuts of 10 per cent are unprecedented. Cuts of 18 to 24 per cent are unimaginable. Unintelligible. No wonder I've no idea what's going on.

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