Leading article: A vision of Conservative cuts

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The Independent Online

The taboo has been broken. Politicians of all stripes are beginning to identify spending cuts. It was the turn of the Conservative shadow chancellor, George Osborne, yesterday who took to the stage of his party's conference in Manchester to propose a rise in the male state pension age and a public sector pay freeze.

Announcing cuts is always a thankless task for any politician, but these are worthy targets. The first is a change that everyone agrees is made inevitable by increased longevity. The proposal to freeze public sector wages is also reasonable because inflation has fallen sharply. There is no case for public sector wages rising faster than general prices. The shadow chancellor also spoke of his intention to cut benefits, such as child tax credits and the child trust fund, for well-off families. This too is sensible. Never mind whether such middle-class subsidies were ever justified, they are now plainly unaffordable.

Mr Osborne was at pains to convey a "compassionate" message to counter Labour allegations that the Tories would be "heartless" cutters. The phrase "we're all in this together" made frequent appearances. But more significant were the stern messages Ms Osborne had for his own party's rank and file. There was an injunction for Conservatives to ditch "lazy rhetoric that belittles those who are employed by the Government". He also disappointed insistent Tory tax cutters by pledging to retain the Government's planned new 50p rate of tax. These are welcome signs that Mr Osborne recognises that what the wider country wants from a future government in these difficult times is pragmatism and moderation, not ideology. Mr Osborne's stark warning to bankers not to return to wildly excessive remuneration also sent an important message that a future Tory government would not make the mistake of assuming that what is in the interests of the City is necessarily in the interests of Britain.

But the fact remains that the public sector savings Mr Osborne outlined yesterday were relatively low-hanging fruits. Alone, they would not be enough to restore balance to the public finances. This was a good start – but many further tests of judgement await for Mr Osborne and his party.

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