‘Deficit-buster’ dares to cut to the chase

I never realised I was such a hard-hearted brute until I tried out the online “deficit-buster” on FT.com.

It allows you to play chancellor and simulate the UK’s next three-year spending review. You swing the axe – and the deficit-buster tells you all the gruesome consequences in terms of human discomfort.

Before I knew it, two million families with an income of more than £24,400 had lost a benefit worth around £1,000. And all because I thought “means-testing” child benefits was an easy option.

I retraced my steps and swung again. Eleven million people over the age of 60 lost their right to free public transport.

Oops. (And I used to be such a nice son-in-law.)

My wife had a go. She tried to abolish the police – but it wouldn’t let her.

This is a fascinating piece of software. Yes, it’s a bit of a blunt instrument, but it makes it perfectly clear, if we needed reminding, how and why the leaders of the UK’s three largest political parties have steered clear of detail on the biggest issue facing whoever wins the general election on May 6. None has explained how at least £30bn of roughly £37bn of necessary savings will be found by 2013-14.

Last week’s televised debate was a “disingenuous display of the ability of practised politicians to pretend that they know the solution for the UK’s major economic and political problems”, history professor Stephen Graubard writes in today’s FT. “The candidates must be held to the fire, explaining what they will do to overcome the serious economic problems. The time for blah, blah, blah is over. The public needs a more honest appraisal.”

My colleague Philip Stephens, also in today’s paper, seems to agree:

“A cash freeze in benefits, public sector pay cuts, cancellation of flagship defence projects, and the scrapping of big infrastructure projects give a flavour of what is in store. This is territory where Margaret Thatcher feared to tread. Even cuts of this order would have to be accompanied by tax increases … In the last televised encounter before polling day [Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg] are supposed to be talking about the economy. This is their chance, you might think, to flesh out plans to reduce public borrowing. I am not holding my breath.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day, something like the FT’s “deficit-buster” was used to determine policies for real.

But in 2010, while we await that future, such software can help to concentrate the mind. Who needs a third television debate? I dare the party leaders to play “deficit-buster” in a live webcast.

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Christopher Cook is an FT editorial writer. Before joining the FT in 2008 as a Peter Martin Fellow, he worked for three years for the Conservative party.

Lorien Kite is deputy comment editor, a post he took up in 2009 after four years as a commissioning editor on the analysis page. He joined the FT in 2000.

Ian Holdsworth became assistant features editor in 2009 and was previously chief production journalist for the features pages.