Are Labour and the Tories going to fight the forthcoming election on a misleading prospectus? Today's Budget and the reaction it provokes will give us a strong indication. We all, of course, hope that growth will return strongly in the coming year, which would improve the state of the public finances as tax revenues would increase and benefits payments would fall. But there is a structural deficit in the British public finances that will need to be closed even if growth rebounds vigorously.
The size of this structural deficit is subject to some uncertainty, but many independent estimates put it at around £80bn, or 6.5 per cent of 2009 GDP. Economies will be needed to fill the gap over the coming years. Hiking taxes considerably would be self-defeating as it would stifle consumer demand. Public spending should take most of the strain.
But cutting the reach of the state will have consequences. Millions will be affected, some through public sector job cuts, some through the curtailment of benefits, and many through the contraction of state services. Labour is committed to halving the deficit by the end of the next parliament, but has been silent up until now about where it would seek most of the necessary economies, arguing that such decisions will need to wait until a department-by-department spending review, which will, conveniently, not come until after the election.
This prevarication has given the Conservatives, who pledge to cut the bulk of the structural deficit by 2014, licence to remain quiet about the details of their own fiscal plans. This deafening silence suits both main parties because it it avoids the risk of frightening voters in advance of the election. No local candidate relishes the idea of being forced to sell an austerity message on the doorstep.
Yet though vagueness might be politically convenient, it is also dishonest, given that cuts are inevitable whichever party wins the next general election. The public should be able to vote knowing what the priorities of the two largest parties are. So credit should go to Vince Cable for being more specific than the Chancellor and George Osborne in outlining where the Liberal Democrats believe public spending out to be cut. In his interview with this newspaper today, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman proposes raising the age qualification for the winter fuel allowances and curbing public sector pensions. Last year he argued for zero overall growth for the public sector pay bill, reducing tax credits to better off families and scrapping Strategic Health Authorities and Regional Development Agencies. Mr Cable also, unlike George Osborne for the Tories, rejects the idea that the £120bn health budget should be ring-fenced.
What Mr Cable outlines would not eliminate the entire structural deficit. But it does go further than what either the Government or the Opposition have so far proposed. And it gives a much greater level of detail. Mr Cable is trying to shift the debate to where it ought to be in advance of a general election: public policy choices.
Fiscal policy is political and the electorate have a right to know, in advance of an election, what the main parties' true political priorities are. We must hope that Alistair Darling will follow Mr Cable's lead today and give some detail of where cuts will be made, because, without such candour, we are facing a deeply disingenuous election campaign.