Leading article: The end of the phoney war on public expenditure

The PM has finally accepted that cuts must be made. Now for a crucial debate
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At last we're beginning to get some sense from this government about the need to start debating public expenditure cuts. It has taken long enough. Since almost the beginning of the year, the public has had to put up with a shrill and unproductive debate between the two main parties, in which Labour has accused the Conservatives of wanting to slash public spending at a time of recession when it is most needed. The Tories have replied by accusing Labour of burying their heads in the sand over the size of the mounting deficit in public finances.

An acknowledgement at No 10 that it will finally have to discuss cuts and delays in big-budget items such as Trident is, in political terms, an acknowledgement that it has failed in its first tactic of trying to pin all talk of curbs on the Conservatives. For Gordon Brown, it is a significant change to the political strategy he has held dear for years.

While it is certainly true that nearly every government, as Mr Brown has consistently declared, has embarked on spending programmes to counteract the effects of recession, it is also true that the escalation of state debt in this country – under way before the recession began to bite – is threatening to overwhelm the nation's budget. In one sense, Gordon Brown may be a victim of his own success. The more the talk of recovery goes on – the latest boost to confidence has come from Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve – the more pressing the case to turn policy back from reflation and deficit spending to a more restrictive stance. Even if the markets are getting ahead of themselves, retrenchment in public finances is not only inevitable, but urgent.

All the more reason to discuss where, and how, the axe might fall in a sensible and pragmatic manner. There are programmes that can be delayed or cancelled. We would name identity cards, and the computerisation of the Health Service, as well as Trident, as three of them. But it is also apparent to almost anyone who has used the public services in Britain that there are extensive inefficiencies throughout and substantial savings to be made from cutting the layers of bureaucracy, the overuse of consultants, and the remorseless rise in management that have grown like topsy under this government.

That includes the National Health Service, as much a victim as any of poor and excessive managerial supervision. But, in the end, it also has to take in more fundamental questions of where and how far the central state should be involved. The whole benefits system, for example, is long overdue a re-evaluation if it is not to consume an ever-greater proportion of the tax take. Even in the area of security, of paramount importance in these times, there is room for a rebalancing of the need for shared information with the right of privacy and liberty. The same applies when considering the value of defence expenditure on aircraft carriers and attack planes as against the more basic technology of providing troops with helicopters, armoured vehicles and functioning communications equipment.

No one should pretend that these programmes provide easy pickings. Difficult choices have to be openly discussed. But the alternative is to go on, as so many previous UK governments have, delaying plans, shaving budgets, stopping recruitment. That way lies the progressive deterioration of services and the postponement of problems to future generations. Better to debate the options now and to reinvigorate our public services then decide after the election.