Cameron kicked off on the 10 percent issue. "Some Labour MPs were a bit confused when they were told about 10 percent: they thought it meant his opinion poll ratings." The gag went down well, and Cameron picked up where he left off with those spending totals that Brown read out in PMQs last week. They spelled out a real terms cut – though Cameron wasn’t to know at the time (the figures were brand new and, suspiciously, cut out of the Treasury documents* perhaps when they realised that they spelled a cut). But he certainly did this time, and kept asking Brown whether there are real terms cuts in the Budget.
"I relish the chance to debate for once policy" said Brown – I very much doubt he does. He’s been exposed as a liar. What will he do? Interestingly, Brown shifts as what the Tories "would" do if they were in power now. But then returned to his central lie (not a word I use lightly, but a lie it is) "they want to spend less, where we would spend more."
"The whole country will conclude that he’s taking them for fools," said Cameron – reprising what is now his central attack line. Brown was finally forced into admitting what Darling (deplorably) did not tell MPs on budget day – that there is a split between current and investment spending. "Real current expenditure will grown in every year to 2013/14 not just in cash terms but in real terms," he says. Note the crucial word "current" – this is only part of total spending (the other two parts being depreciation and investment). Brown continues: "Capital expenditure will grow until the year of the Olympics, after the year of the Olympics capital expenditure will be less but asset sales will make up for much of the difference… the unfortunate thing that his proposals is to cut expenditure by 10 percent".
Brown’s tool here, a reflex, is to try and blow smoke. Why say "the year of the Olympics" – why not "2012" or, in fiscal terms, 2011/12? And, anyway, it peaks far ealier. I’ve pasted a graph below showing what Brown’s plans are for his so-called "investment" and it peaks, oooh, this financial year. As Cameron said: "It sounds more and more desperate" – the right response, rather than be wrestled down into a detailed debate. Financial debates are won by whoever can speak with the most clarity, and Cameron did well to keep it simple. "Whichever way you look at the figures the government have plans to cut spending." He quoted the figures on the below chart. On "current spending", he rightly said, it is being cut when you factor in debt interest. All this is pretty easy, actually. Brown then reads out current expenditure total, sounding every inch like the over-promoted finance minister he is. "£603 to £629 to £633 to £638 to £642" – yes, Brown, but take away debt interest and this figure falls sharply.
"Every commentator, every economist, has concluded that the PM is wrong." Cameron quoted Robert Chote from the IFS to Brown, saying that the PM "needs help" to interpret his own Budget figures. Brown reads a set of figures again. "Why does he find it so impossible to give a straight answer and be honest with the British people?" Brown says he is the one who gave statistics – but Cameron’s charge transcends statistics. It is about honesty. Brown sounds shifty, and the more he blasts this message the shiftier he will sound. Brown promised that this "debate is going to go on for many months". The Tories will hope so. The louder Brown shouts, the better he unwittingly makes the Tory key point: that he is not to be trusted on the economy.
* To see how the Treasury has airbrushed out the falling spending totals, open this spreadsheet and go to Sheet B1. The figures Brown mentioned in PMQs – this week and last week – are not included. The horizon does not to 2013/14 – even though such figures are in the Budget. But you can work them out by adding together current spending + depreciation + investment. Why didn’t the Treasury want us to tally that total? Why are such figures apparently important enough to mention in Parliament but not in a mammoth spreadsheet? The truth, eventually, will out. As Gordon Brown is discovering.