FIELD FRANK The hare has been set running on the above question today not by a Conservative politician, but by a Labour MP who is pressing for such cuts.

In the latest ConservativeHome survey of Tory members, no fewer than 94% took the view that significant cuts in public expenditure would be necessary to restore order to the public finances.

Today that position is eloquently echoed by the man who is most Tories' favourite Labour pin-up, Frank Field – the former welfare reform minister who was told to "think the unthinkable" by Tony Blair and then prevented from doing just that.  

In advance of the Budget next Wednesday, he has written in The Spectator a devastating critique of the economic problems stored up by the Labour Government, which is worth quoting extensively here, not least because most Conservatives will find it almost impossible to disagree with him:

"It is difficult to overdramatise the danger that is engulfing our country. In some ways our position is more precarious than in 1940 when we stood alone against the Nazi tyranny. The danger can be stated easily enough. Far from building up reserves during the latter stages of the boom, the government went on a borrowing spree…"

Having effectively echoed the Tory charge that the Government "didn't fix the roof while the sun was shining", Mr Field writes that last November's Pre-Budget Report estimation of proposed borrowing of £78 billion is now guesstimated by the Government at somewhere between £180 billion and £190 billion for each of the next two years (today's Times reckons £175 billion):

"Clearly no one, including the Government, has much idea yet of the true magnitude of borrowing… While we clinically talk of public debt we are euphemistically speaking of trying to grab part of the income belonging to future generations to spend on ourselves… At some stage the Government will wake up to the awful realisation that borrowing on its projected scale might just be a rather difficult operation. And at this point the particular weakness of the UK’s position will become only too apparent."

"The Government appears to hope that it will gain enough cover by repeating ad nauseam that it is Keynesian common sense to borrow during the downturn and pay back when the economy is on a more even keel. Whether it really believes this is anyone’s guess. But its bluff might be called, and here will be a test not only for the current administration, but also for the opposition, whose consistent poll lead suggests it may form the next government."

He cautions "any government" against thinking it can "tax itself
out of these debt levels", suggesting that tax rises "can only play a
modest role in closing the enormous gap in the national accounts".

So Mr Field asserts that the Government "not only has a moral duty now to cut public expenditure, but may be forced to do so by its inability to borrow on the scale necessary", and he has a variety of suggestions as to how it might go about what he calls the "Herculean task of bringing government spending nearer to what it can raise in taxes".

He stresses that the following proposals do not form a programme in itself, but rather are examples of the kinds of cuts needed to go just some of the way towards balancing the books:

  • Scrapping Trident’s replacement to save between £15 billion and £20 billion;
  • Scrapping the ID card scheme to save £5 billion;
  • Freezing the health budget in cash terms to save an annual £7.5 billion;
  • Postponing the increase in the school leaving age; and
  • Scrapping the target of sending 50% of school leavers to university.

In a further nod to the expectation of a Conservative government before too long, he concludes by calling on "both opposition and government" to use the Budget to find ways of rebuilding the country's solvency".

Dare I suggest that Mr Field ought to be offered a role in that Conservative Government?

Jonathan Isaby

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