Last night must have felt like a blessed relief for Gordon Brown.
Far from rogue radio microphones and frustrated pensioners, the Prime Minister looked at home as he expounded on deficits, taxation and "immoral" Conservative policies. David Cameron delivered another fluent, if unspectacular, performance. And Nick Clegg, displaying his now familiar communication skills, managed to get across his central message that he is offering something different from the two "old parties".
But the reality is that, on policy, all three leaders went into the chamber for the third and final televised leaders' debate naked. As the Institute for Financial Studies pointed out earlier out this week, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have gaping holes in their economic plans. Though the leaders repeated their promises last night to reduce the deficit, none has actually outlined a detailed set of proposals on how they would accomplish it. They fear that too much detail on the pain to come would alienate wavering voters. This cowardice does a profound disservice to the British electorate. The public cannot be expected to make an informed choice at the ballot box without knowing what the parties' economic priorities would be if elected.
It is clear the voters are going to have to rely on what limited information they have. Gordon Brown would like voters to concentrate on past performance. And the Conservatives certainly had a poor banking crisis, with the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, displaying bad judgement when he publicly opposed the nationalisation of Northern Rock and the fiscal stimulus. The Liberal Democrats' Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, on the other hand, made his name with a series of calm and sensible interventions. As for Mr Brown, whatever other faults can be laid at the Prime Minister's door, his bank recapitalisation programme marked the beginning of the end of the 2008 credit panic.
But elections tend to be about the future. Mr Cameron argued that the size of our deficit is holding Britain back economically, saying that the Conservatives would "save government waste to put money back in peoples' pockets". He proposes to find £6bn of "efficiency savings" in the present financial year and to act more speedily than his opponents would to bring down the deficit thereafter. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, argue that the economy remains too fragile at the moment to cope with any reduction in demand – including the demand provided by government spending.
Given that the parties are squabbling about cuts of £6bn in the context of a £163bn deficit this might seem like the narcissism of small differences. But there is an important economic judgement in this debate. And the economic judgement of Labour and the Liberal Democrats looks sounder. There is no evidence to support Mr Cameron's contention that the deficit, large as it is, is crowding out the private sector. On the contrary, government borrowing is the only thing keeping British growth in positive territory. Mr Brown argued last night that history shows us the dangers of premature fiscal tightening. He might have made the point in a rather clunking fashion, but it is true.
The other important consideration is future shocks. Overshadowing last night's debate was the ominous financial storm in Greece. If this crisis is not resolved, another serious economic slump on the continent might well be in store. And Britain is not an economic island. The effects of such a collapse would almost certainly plunge us back into recession too. British voters need to think long and hard about which party leader on display last night would have the judgement and the will to deal with what this economic crisis – the most serious in a generation – might still have to throw at us.Reuse content