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Coffee House

David Cameron’s moral mission on public spending

4 March 2014

8:57 AM

4 March 2014

8:57 AM

David Cameron’s speech on the economy today is designed to hit Labour on its weak spot again: reminding voters that while this government is trying (with varying levels of success) to cut public spending and hack back the legacy of debt for our children, Labour wants to borrow more. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls will say they won’t borrow a penny more on day-to-day spending, a linguistic sleight of hand which leaves them with plenty of leeway to borrow tons more for capital spending. But still they try to criticise the Conservatives each time official figures appear showing government borrowing levels.

The Prime Minister wants to remind voters that no matter how critical Labour is of this government’s borrowing, Miliband and Balls want to borrow even more. He will say:

‘If we don’t get to grips with the deficit now we are passing a greater and greater burden of debt to our children. We are saying that more and more of their hard-earned future income should be wasted on paying off the bill we leave them. Do we really want to be the ones who responded to a crisis by putting off tomorrow what we had to do today? Can we really teach our children the importance of being responsible and at the same time shirk the most fundamental responsibility of all?

‘Some of our opponents seem to think we can. They think we can carry on spending and borrowing more and more, whatever the consequences for our children. But I say no: racking up more and more debts for our children is irresponsible. It’s not fair. It’s not right. And I’m not prepared to do it.’

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This is a continuation of that ‘moral mission’ theme that the Prime Minister has set out alongside Iain Duncan Smith on welfare. Cameron will argue that ‘it’s wrong for government to take a single penny more of your money than we absolutely need. There’s a bit of an attitude problem here that really makes me angry’.

This is all very fine and noble. But it is rather muddied by the actions of the government itself, which has decided (because of the Lib Dems, not the Tories) to splash out £600 million on free school meals for infant school children, including those with wealthy parents who are perfectly able to spend their own money on their child’s meal. And while Cameron says he wants to cut public spending for tax cuts and argues that the Conservatives think it is immoral to tax people more than they need, so much of the tax debate is about who is tougher: when Miliband raises the 50p rate at PMQs, the Prime Minister responds by saying that the top rate of tax is higher than in any year under Labour (which only introduced the 50p rate in the last few weeks of its tenure). Perhaps this just shows how difficult it is to talk about a smaller state when you have voters to please.

That said, the extracts released so far do show the Prime Minister making a lively case for a smaller state that makes it difficult for his opponents to argue that this is some secret evil Tory plan to line the pockets of fat cat donors. He will say:

‘Because every bit of government waste we can cut, every efficiency we can achieve is money we can give back to you. A bit of extra cash that can help a Dad afford those trainers for his son or help a Mum celebrate her daughter’s birthday with a meal out. Having more money in our pockets is what gives everyone that sense of financial security and peace of mind. It’s what enables us to provide for our families and feel more confident about the future.’

That word ‘security’ is there again: the Tories think it encourages voters to panic about the risks of voting Labour. And as well as setting out a moral mission for government spending, regardless of how easy that mission is to accomplish, that’s what this speech is about: spooking voters about the insecurity of electing a Labour government in 2015.

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