By Tim Montgomerie
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Ed Balls has given an interview for today's Guardian in which he promises a comprehensive review of everything that government spends. There's just one catch to his big promise. The review will be after the next election. It's a bit like a man with a serious weight problem. I'll stop eating, I really will but not until next week… then next month… then next year. For Labour it's always mañana, mañana.
Tory HQ cannot believe its luck that Labour has taken such inadequate steps to address its toxic reputation as a party that can't control its appetite for more taxing and more spending. Voters certainly don't like the cuts but large majorities still believe that they are necessary. Central to the Tory election plan is a determination to paint Labour and the two Eds as politicians who have learnt nothing from recent years and are incapable of taking tough decisions.
A different approach to regaining fiscal credibility is being pursued by Labour's leader in Scotland, Johann Lamont. Ms Lamont is asking why SNP politicians, like Nicola Sturgeon – who earn £200,000 per year – should get free prescriptions. Ending such free presciptions would save £57 million, she has said and has asked: "How many nurses is that?”. Ms Lamont has set up a policy review under the chairmanship of Professor Arthur Midwinter to look at whether Scotland should continue with other untargeted "freebies", including free university tuition.
Tory MSP Murdo Fraser has Tweeted his approval of Ms Lamont's thinking: "Good to see Johann warming to Tory ideas on the unfairness of give-aways. Help should be targeted at those most in need." But if you want to know why Ed Balls hasn't adopted such tough thinking then you only have to look at the reactions of left-wing writers like Joyce McMillan. Ms McMillan accused Labour's leader in Scotland of "boss-class miserabilism".
Ed Balls isn't willing to take tough decisions because his party thinks it's on course to win the next election as an unreformed, big state party. Ahead by an average of 10% in the polls they see no reason to change and detoxify their economic reputation. The opinion poll leads have acted like tranquilisers, hiding the underlying weakness of Labour's economic credibility. Coalition failures may yet give Labour power but if the economy starts to recover – and this week's Economist becomes the latest credible source to think we may have turned the corner – then the next election starts becoming more competitive and Labour will come to regret not doing more in this mid-term period to prove it had learnt some lessons from the Balls-Brown bust.