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Coffee House

The numbers spoil Labour’s narrative

19 February 2010

9:05 AM

19 February 2010

9:05 AM

Labour have certainly come out of the traps snarling and gnashing this morning.  For one, they’re making the most of two letters in the FT, signed by 60 economists, which ostensibly support their position on the public finances.  And then there’s Gordon Brown’s speech to European leaders, in which he implores them to tackle the "hatred" of "the right".  Naturally, by "the right", he means "David Cameron".

It’s those letters which really grab the attention, though.  Not really because of what they say, or who has signed them, but because they’re suggestive of how the debate over the public finances is going to go.  Yep, the Tories get 20 economists to write a letter in support of their deficit-reduction plans, so Labour respond with 60 economists of their own.  Our politicians are playing a game of high-stakes, fiscal Top Trumps.  And it’s all so, so wearying.

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But, behind the tired one-upmanship, hidden away from public view, there’s the truth that – as it stands – there’s little to discern between the two parties on the public finances.  For their part, the Tories have diluted their rhetoric about cutting spending this year.  And Labour are still inconsistent about the scale and pace of their cuts.  I mean, we’ve recently had Peter Mandelson admitting that cuts will be necessary this year, and Alistair Darling boasting that Labour have already implemented some of the proposed Tory cuts.  How does all that square with the economists’ letter spat?

In the end, Labour’s confusing narrative will probably be up-ended by the actual numbers.  Indeed, today’s Times cover shouts "On borrowed time," with a warning about how the deficit threatens our recovery.  It’s that kind of headline, I’d suggest, which will cut through to the public – however many economists brandish their pens.

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