Fraser Nelson is continuing his long war with the Conservatives over how deficit reduction should be calculated. Fraser says that it has been reduced by a third, the Conservatives by half. Who is right? Both. If you want a more learned exposition, Peter Hoskin is your man.
But how much does this to-and-fro really matter? Look at the deficit from another vantage. The Institute of Fiscal Studies says that the bulk of the slowdown in spending growth – known to our friends on the Left as “cuts” – is yet to come. £35 billion have been made. £55 billion are yet to come. That’s more than half. Labour, of course, is not committed to the same deficit reduction timetable as the Conservatives. But its official position was set out by Ed Balls over the weekend: “Let me be clear, including to those who would wish it were not so: Labour will need to cut public spending in the next parliament to balance the books”.
We have not been told by either party where the bulk of these reductions will come from. And we won’t be before May. David Cameron said yesterday that the coming election will be “the most important election in a generation”. I don’t know about that. But it is certainly set to be the least honest one.
Since this is so, isn’t the to-do between Fraser and CCHQ beside the point that matters? It is rather like two sherpas squabbling over whose map best describes the journey so far – while, above both of them and all of us, rears a peak as sheer as K2: that of the unconquered deficit. Neither are offering the map that really matters – namely, the one that would enable us to climb it.
Politicians or media? Who is to blame? Since the politicians are the actors in this drama, and the Spectator is only, well, a spectator (along with the rest of the media), the bulk of the fault lies in Ministers’ offices, not editors’ chairs. Between them, the parties have conspired to produce plans whereby most state spending consumed by older people is protected, even when it makes no sense at all – in the form, say, of bus passes or TV licences or winter fuel allowances provided at taxpayers’ expense to billionaries. Funding a National Health Service and a state pension makes good sense, of course. But we cannot afford to ring-fence and triple-lock both indefinitely.
There are two mitigating pleas. The first is that some politicians have tried to spell out the truth. All praise and honour to Kwasi Kwarteng, who has indicated that health spending is unsustainable as it stands, to Dominic Raab, who has proposed detailed savings, to Andrew Tyrie, and to the Free Enterprise Group to which all belong.
The second plea reaches deeper. It is that spelling out spending cuts may cheer up a few journalists, plus a handful of brave MPs, but it frightens most voters – who, in the great scheme of things, matter rather more. The political parties fear that that setting out their spending reduction plans would mean losing the election. They believe that the British people, confronted with the unpleasant but unavoidable truth, would pick up their skirts and run screaming for the hills. On this count, who can honestly say that the politicians are wrong?
And though the media are indeed mere spectators, critics help to shape public taste. (Furthermore, and unlike politicians, we can’t be turned out by the voters.) So doesn’t the centre-right media in Britain – which, goodness knows, is always calling for spending control – have a bit of a responsibility here? Shouldn’t it level with its readers – many of whom tend to be older, better off, and gainers from healthcare and pensions spending – rather more about where the axe must sooner or later fall?
While I am in this self-critical mood, it is worth adding that ConservativeHome is no doubt far from faultless. But we have tried to grapple with the spending control serpent, running a week-long series on how to cut it with pieces from Andrew Haldenby, Ruth Porter, Chris Nicholson, Matthew Sinclair and Neil O’Brien (then of Policy Exchange, now a George Osborne adviser). My solution to the delicate political question of how to get spending for the older interest groups under control is an Affordability Commission. Others will have their own ideas.
This being so, let’s hear them. The Spectator is to add the name of each Conservative MP repeating the claim that the deficit has been halved to a list. Wouldn’t its energies be at least as well employed producing a special issue on spending reductions? How about a series from the Daily Telegraph? Shouldn’t the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times pitch in?
The answer to these questions is uncomfortable for the centre-right. It is easier to appease one’s readers with tales of massive tax cuts, or to take broad aim at red tape and political correctness, than to confront them with necessity: that their vested interests, like everyone else’s, must take a hit. Goodness knows, that might lose readers – just as detailed manifesos might lose voters. Perhaps there is an uncomfortable likeness between right-of-centre journalists and the right-of-centre politicians we put under the lash.
At any rate, the question has been asked before. But it is worth posing again. Are the media educationalists as well as entertainers? In our own Centre-Right corner, are we in danger of shrivelling into a Conservative Entertainment Complex?