It was all just a dream.
You may have thought that the Tories were the party of fiscal probity. You may have thought that they were the ones who were going to get a grip on Britain’s desperate public finances. They were the ones who would prevent the loss of the UK’s AAA credit rating and keep interest rates low. Etc, etc, etc.
In fact you were imagining things. Or were you?
It was October’s Tory party conference which saw the austerity message writ large. David Cameron defended plans to make spending cuts, saying people wanted “decisive” leadership on reducing the deficit. Yet the two big announcements that month – freezing public sector pay and raising the retirement age – will not happen til 2011 and 2016.
The question has always been what about this year. How will the Tories cut public services in 2010/11 if they form the next government?
Philip Hammond prompted ridicule on Monday when he said the party had identified two cuts* worth “£1bn, £1.5bn, something like that”. The actual figure turned out to be £700m, based on IFS estimates. The Treasury’s own estimates put the figure much, much lower.
That leaves the impression that – contrary to earlier beliefs – there may only be a cigarette paper between the Labour and Tory spending plans for 2010/11.
The Tories insist that Hammond’s two examples are just that: and more policies will follow. Yet they are heavily constrained – they don’t want to look like ruthless axe-wielders just months before the general election. Thus the giant wobble.
As I wrote yesterday morning, the weak GDP figures from last week have thrown their plans into confusion.
For Labour it is an open goal: take Alistair Darling at the Treasury questions this afternoon:
“It’s important to have a firm, credible plan. What’s quite clear, especially in the last few days, that the party opposite doesn’t have a credible plan – it doesn’t even have a plan at all. It is quite obvious they are planning from one day to the next. their proposals are a complete and utter shambles.”
This week has been marked by the sound of reversing wheels as the Tories claim that they never said they would cut “deeper”…..only “faster” and “further”. Confused?
The problem is that in a Tory party where David Cameron was all things to all people, at least there was one clear and recognisable policy: they would get to grips with the deficit. Now that is in doubt.
UPDATE: Here is Philip Stephens on the “shared delusion” of the two parties.
* Scrapping tax credits for families earning over £50,000 and ending child trust funds