Senior Labour figures have looked uncomfortable during this campaign when speaking of their own party’s policy on balancing the books – the day-to-day spending books, that is. But this afternoon Chris Leslie gave an endorsement of the pledge that is as clear and enthusiastic as voters are likely to get.
Challenged by Andrew Neil on today’s Daily Politics debate on the economy, the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury said he made ‘no apologies’ for his party’s focus on clearing the current budget deficit, rather than the overall deficit. Leslie said:
‘The distinction is this…having a balance on the current budget is not the limit of our ambitions. We believe that we could get a surplus even on our current budget, and of course that would help with the capital question.
But I’m not going to make any apologies for making a distinction between day-to-day spending, which is the one the markets and others are concerned about, and productive public investment, because capital is very important and that we get the infrastructure improved in our economy.
It is not the limit of our ambitions to have the current budget solely into balance. I hope that we will move into surplus and we can get the national debt falling as a percentage of GDP within this next coming parliament. That is our commitment, cast-iron, on the front page of our manifesto.’
After weeks of trying to play the distinction down – and even pretending this equates to a genuine balancing of the books – Labour’s position is at least clear when it comes from Leslie’s mouth.
Conservative finance minister David Gauke pounced on this as evidence of ‘the approach the last Labour government took which ran into the Crash with the highest structural deficit of any major economy’. But Leslie pressed back with George Osborne’s voting record of having backed Labour’s spending at the time. ‘We’ve learnt the lessons from that,’ Gauke replied.
The SNP’s economic credibility also came under close inspection. Stewart Hosie, the party’s deputy leader, admitted the Yes campaign had got it ‘wrong’ on oil prices at the time of the referendum. Hosie said:
‘You’re right about $113 a barrel, we got that wrong… The UK government had a higher figure. Even as last year, the UK government were forecasting $127 by the time we got to 2018-19.
Nobody expected the price to soften the way it did… Given it dropped to $45 a barrel, which was very low and difficult for the UK as well as Scotland, today it’s up to $62 a barrel.
Everyone got the oil price wrong, there’s no question about that. None at all… But nobody ever, ever predicated Scottish constitutional change on the price of oil.’
The emotional case for independence may not have been predicated on oil prices, but the economic case was certainly reliant on the resource. The SNP should have taken more of a hit following the post-referendum drop – instead the party are on 49% in the polls and ‘full fiscal autonomy’ grows ever nearer.