While Brown, Cameron and Clegg get ready to slug it out under the spotlights in what promises to be a very heavily stage-managed TV debate, it emerged that all three main parties each have a £30bn spending black hole in their manifestos to fill. That’s the difference that researchers at the FT claim to have found between the savings that are being planned and the spending that is promised.
Of course we all know that public spending is the subject none of the parties really wants to talk about, the truth being regarded simply as too unpalatable for public consumption during the beauty parade of an election campaign.
Nevertheless, the story makes sobering reading. Neither Labour, Tories nor LibDems have proposed cuts of more than £10bn in public spending so far, and yet basic arithmetic suggests that saving of more like £37bn will have to be found in the next three or four years. That’s simply to cover the costs of interest payments on our eyewatering debt levels plus projected rises in the social security bill.
Add in proposed spending increases – all three are committed to a £4bn programme of foreign aid, for instance – and the extent to which blind eyes are being turned becomes all too apparent.
The size of the black hole is equivalent to a quarter of the NHS budget, or half the cost of basic state pension provision if you prefer. It would take tax rises for the average household totalling £1,100 a year to plug it. No wonder none of our wannabe new PMs is keen to tackle the subject, doubtless they’d rather wait until they are safely ensconced behind the wrought-iron gates of Downing Street before taking on such inflamatory issues.
Even the LibDems – whose shadow chancellor Vince Cable has come closest of all to 'fessing up the extent of the pain ahead – haven’t explained how they will deal with the problem in detail. But it’s the Tories who face the biggest manifesto gap, as their plans to reduce the deficit are the most ambitious.
Whether any of this will be aired in tonight’s televised outing remains to be seen. Given that there are apparently 76 rules governing every aspect of the debates – up to and including a ‘no-clapping' edict for the audience – we remain sceptical.
Deeply frustrating it may be, but we will probably all have to wait until after the election to find out what is really going to be done to grasp this particular nettle. Whoever ends up in charge, the truth is that their options are going to be severely limited. Drastic cuts in public spending are looming, and whether they are red, blue or orange tinged arguably doesn’t make much difference.