Tories free of spending commitment
With one bound they were free.
The Tories are no longer committed to matching Labour's spending plans. In a speech this morning David Cameron says that his party will take another look at what government should be spending in what is likely to be general election year 2010-11. However, he doesn't and won't say what level of spending there should be.
This is designed to get them out of the political bind they've been in.
The country, they've been saying, cannot afford Gordon Brown's tax cuts because the cupboard is bare and it's irresponsible to borrow to cut taxes.
With a commitment to match Labour's spending plans, the Tories risked being painted as committed to tax rises to fund the gap. They could not promise what many in their party have been demanding - spending cuts to fund tax cuts.
Now they can.
They may be free of one constraint but they are opening themselves up to an old Labour attack - warnings of Tory cuts.
Team Cameron's calculation is that the change in the economic outlook blunts that weapon. If Labour warn of Tory cuts they will be telling the country that they'll carry on spending regardless of current economic circumstances. That will allow the Conservatives to say that Labour's borrowing bombshell will be matched by a tax bombshell.
UPDATE, 11:55AM: George Osborne says that today's move spells out a clear choice for people - spending restraint under the Tories and tax rises under Labour.
Somehow I doubt that's where Labour will want to leave the matter.
Remember that although today is politically significant it still leaves most of the important economic questions unanswered.
All the Conservatives have told us is that they would spend less than the government currently plans to in 2010-11. However, they concede that the government is itself committed to reviewing its spending plans for that year. What's more, the Tories haven't got answers to the really hard question - how much less should be spent on what?
It's clear that David Cameron wants voters to conclude that he tells it to them straight whereas Gordon Brown has a history of being misleading on tax.
Today Labour are pointing out that today's speech did nothing to offer families and businesses help now. In the longer term, I suspect that they will respond by pointing out that the Tories have tended to be rather better at calling for government to do more (more prison places, more money for the armed forces, more tax breaks for marriage... etc) than to do less thus allowing them (you guessed it) to say that the Tory sums don't add up.
UPDATE, 8:30PM: The whole point of David Cameron and George Osborne's commitment to match Labour's spending plans was to neutralise Gordon Brown's favourite election strategy - Labour investment versus Tory cuts.
I explained in my earlier post why the Tories decided to change their position.
It's already obvious, however, that this will throw up difficult questions for the Tory leadership as the Tory right demand bigger cuts sooner and Labour suggests that there'll cut anything they don't make specific promises to match Labour's spending on.
I've just interviewed the Tory leader and he did give one indication of the scale of spending curbs that might be needed:
ROBINSON: Is it your plan to cut spending so that taxes don't have to go up under a Conservative government?
CAMERON: Basically yes. We need to recognise we cannot go on as we are. If we have the current debt we've got plus the government's borrowing binge, which they are going to go ahead with, plus their spending plans, there will be really massive tax increase, a big bombshell after the election. The government aren't really denying it, they're talking about a £15bn or maybe £30bn extra. If they do that and money's got to be paid back through a tax increase, we're talking about 4p on the income tax rate, something like that, a really big increase. Now if we want to avoid [this] we've got to change something. What I'm saying is we need to change the growth of public spending, to get it under control, because we don't need a tax increase like that just as we're trying to come out of recession.
So, to avoid tax rises after the next election is David Cameron saying that public spending will have to rise by around £15bn less than under Labour?
P.S. Before anyone writes in to point out the difference between a cut and a slower rate of increase in public spending, I do know the difference. Indeed, I once had a rather memorable exchange with Tony Blair about just that distinction when during the 2005 election campaign he unveiled a poster claiming that the Conservative Party would initiate cuts of £35bn.