This is supposed to be the week when people start thinking about the General Election. George Osborne certainly thinks voters are only just switching on as he used his press conference this morning to reiterate a number of claims about Labour’s economic policies that the Tories made last week, including one that the Institute for Fiscal Studies politely described as ‘unhelpful’. The Chancellor launched something called ‘Labour Party Fiscal Plans: An Analysis’, which he presented with the help of a nifty PowerPoint that splashed the words ‘SPENT’ over every funding stream Ed Miliband’s party has come up with so far. It included the claim that Labour would hit working families with £3,028 more in tax (over several years, though that qualification tends to be rather far away from the initial scary-sounding claim), and that Labour would run a £30 billion budget deficit for ever’.
David Gauke, who along with Priti Patel accompanied George Osborne at the press conference, said his ‘challenge for Ed Miliband and Ed Balls is this: stop taking the British people for fools. If your policy is to borrow more then say you would borrow more’.
All very well and good (if you don’t mind ‘unhelpful’ calculations). But of course what happened straight after the formal speeches had finished was that journalists started asking Osborne and his colleagues for more clarity on something they are being rather shy in talking about, which is welfare cuts. Osborne was asked repeatedly why he wouldn’t spell out the detail of those cuts, and he repeatedly refused to give any more detail, saying simply that the Tories had managed to cut welfare while protecting the vulnerable in this Parliament and that they would do so in the next parliament. He was then asked by Michael Crick to rule out rolling child benefit into universal credit, which the IFS says would save £4.8 billion a year. The Chancellor replied that ‘you can judge us on our approach in this Parliament and if we wanted to put Child Benefit in with Universal Credit we would have done it’. Crick exclaimed ‘rule it out!’. Osborne replied: ‘Well, I’ve just given a very clear answer that if we had wanted to do it, we would have done it’. Not necessarily a clear answer, and still no more clarity on those welfare cuts overall.
Outside the briefing, Labour officials were handing out their own ‘analysis’ of the Tories’ ‘extreme’ spending plans, called ‘the Tories are the ones with questions to answer’.
The conclusion? Both parties have questions to answer. But they won’t answer them until one of them is in government. There is something slightly impressive, though, about a press conference that starts with a lecture about a party refusing to reveal its spending plans that then involves the lecturer refusing to reveal his plans for spending cuts.