Chancellor: Labour cuts would be tougher than Thatcher's
The chancellor has conceded in an interview with me that if Labour is re-elected, public spending cuts will be tougher and deeper than those implemented by Margaret Thatcher.
I asked Alistair Darling to spell out how tough spending cuts could be:
Robinson: "The Treasury's own figures suggest deeper, tougher than Thatcher's - do you accept that?"
Darling: "They will be deeper and tougher - where we make the precise comparison I think is secondary to an acknowledgement that these reductions will be tough."
The independent think tank, the Institute of Fiscal Studies, has noted that that total public spending increased by an average of 1.1% a year in real terms over the Thatcher era. This is almost three times the increase of 0.4% a year that Alistair Darling has pencilled in for the next Parliament.
The IFS went on to observe that:
"[I]f we subtract spending on welfare and debt interest then we estimate that the rest of public spending would be cut in real terms by an average of 1.4% a year compared to an average increase of 0.7% in the Thatcher era. We have not seen five years with an average annual real cut as big as this since the mid-1970s."
As the Conservatives wish to make bigger spending cuts than Labour, they have already accepted that they would have to be tougher than Margaret Thatcher.
Update 1753: This is not the first time the chancellor has caused a stir by accepting reality. It has not always been comfortable for him. After he observed that the world faced the worst economic crisis for 60 years, he says the "forces of hell" were unleashed on him.
The problem Labour has, of course, is that while what Alistair Darling says is true, it is also totally at odds with the message the party is giving to the electorate.
Voters are being asked to focus on so-called efficiency savings in dull things like IT, procurement and reducing staff sickness rates. Few actual cuts have been spelled out beyond the budget squeeze in universities which the chancellor sought to lessen in his Budget. The reality, of course, will be job cuts, real pay cuts and freezes and service reductions in the public sector.
Meantime, tax rises on the rich are being put up in lights while the fact that every basic-rate taxpayer will soon be paying more is downplayed.
The chancellor - who is by instinct straight - has learned the lesson from the prime minister's denial of cuts last year and can point to plenty of occasions when he has warned of how tough things will be and has set out figures and policies.
Nevertheless, all the polling suggests that few voters recognise the facts, believing something which no politician argues: that the deficit can be dealt with by efficiency savings alone.