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Field Mark Feb 2012Mark Field is the Member of Parliament for the Cities of London and Westminster and currently serves as a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Follow Mark on Twitter.

Recent weeks
have confirmed that politics can be a strange and unpredictable trade.

Barely three
years ago, the Coalition came into office pledging to eliminate the UK’s
structural deficit within a five-year term. Cumulative public sector net
borrowing between 2011-12 and 2015-16 was forecast at £322bn. The voters were
warned in terrifying terms that any larger a deficit would result in
explosively higher long-term interest rates. As a consequence, Labour’s plans
to borrow an additional £50bn over the course of the parliament were derided by
coalition ministers as irresponsible and potentially ruinous to our economic
health.

The outcome of
near stagnant growth since then means, according to the OBR’s own projections, that five-year borrowing will come in at £539.4bn, almost £220bn more than
planned. Yet what would have been regarded as reckless over-borrowing only
three years ago has had negligible impact on interest rates (for now at
least…)

By rights, this
might have been seen as a glorious vindication of Labour’s consistent
contention that the UK government could, and should, have borrowed more in
classic Keynesian style since 2010. By contrast, this grisly outturn in deficit
reduction plans has instead persuaded the Opposition that it should stick
firmly to the Coalition’s spending proposals for 2015-16.

George
Osborne’s tactical gambit some weeks back of announcing a single year Spending
Review so early for the first year of the next parliament was reasonably
transparent. It was clearly designed to put Labour on the spot – should it show
some leg now or hold back, lying low and not committing itself to its own plans
on spending and, more toxically, welfare until the run up to May 2015?


So by sticking to the government’s proposals to trim £11.5 billion from departmental budgets in the
tax year that commences with the next election and folding so early in the
game, has Labour walked into a trap? After all, you only stick to your
predecessor’s plans or course of action if you wish to neutralise an
issue, and fight the forthcoming election on what you perceive is more
favourable ground.

In 1996-97, Tony
Blair largely blunted the constant Tory refrain that the economy was thriving
by matching the then Government’s policies. Similarly, David Cameron between
2006 and 2010 relentlessly sought to reassure the electorate that his
administration had no plan to reorganise the NHS and would ringfence real
expenditure on healthcare.

Ironically, the parking of that issue may yet make it
harder for Conservatives to derive any political benefit in the aftermath of
the appalling Mid-Staffs and CQC scandals. Whilst both assuredly happened on
Labour’s watch, the nightmare scenario is that voters may see these examples of
mismanagement as failings that have come to light during a time of austerity
and blame the Conservatives in spite of the near decade-long political truce on
the NHS. It is certainly encouraging that Jeremy Hunt is so firmly on the front
foot as the patients’ champion – he deserves the Party’s strong support.

In spite of
Labour’s clear failings here, it may yet provide the Opposition with a more
familiar and comfortable line of attack in its May 2015 campaign (a reprise
from 1997 of ’24 hours to save the NHS’ perhaps?).

What has also
become evident in the political shadow boxing of the past month is a
deep-seated lack of confidence that Ed Miliband has in being able to sell to
voters his sincerely-held view that the legacy of the financial crash is that
the political facts of life are becoming more social democratic. Arguably, he
would be better advised to have spent the next two years painstakingly putting
some meat onto the bones of his novel economic thinking, although perhaps he is
less convinced by ‘pre-distribution’ these days!

Instead, I
reckon that, in his and Ed Balls’ response to the Spending Review, Labour has
signalled clearly that despite the coalition’s lack of progress in deficit reduction
and its failure to oversee growth, the economy cannot be a potentially winning
card for Labour in 2015.

To take just
one example, on welfare the Opposition team are congenitally incapable of
renouncing the ruinously expensive impact of working tax credits. When
instituted in 1997, Chancellor Brown faithfully promised his next-door neighbour
that its cost would not rise above £600 million per annum. The true impact of
working tax credits has been to delay the urgent case for radically improving
the UK’s skills base, whilst simultaneously enabling employers to drive down
headline wages at a time of ever-higher immigration. This disastrous vehicle of
social engineering has cost the UK taxpayer an average of £7.2 billion in each
of the past three years, as part of a tax credits bill now exceeding £30
billion per annum.

However anaemic the state of the UK economy may be by
election time, Mr Miliband has conceded the veracity of the Conservatives’
assertion that voters will be reluctant to hand the keys back to those
responsible for crashing the car.

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