Nick Clegg's article in today's Times (£) offers a preview of an attack the coalition will use repeatedly against Labour in 2013: what would you do? In reference to Labour's opposition to the coalition's plan to increase benefits by just 1 per cent for the next three years, Clegg writes: "Labour must show how they’d pay for it. Would they cut hospital budgets? Schools? Defence?" He also demands that Ed Balls and Ed Miliband say which of the coalition's cuts "they would keep, which they would lose and where they would find the money instead."
But the Deputy PM shouldn't expect answers any time soon. In an end-of-year interview with the Times, Ed Balls signalled that Labour would hold back its key tax and spending commitments until 2015. "Until we know the state of the economy, the state of the public finances and how bad things have turned out, it’s very hard for us to know what we can possibly say."
Balls's argument is a reasonable one. The Office for Budget Responsibility originally expected the economy to grow by 5.7 per cent between the first quarter of 2010 and the second quarter of 2012. It actually grew by 0.9 per cent. As a result, the coalition is now forecast to borrow £212bn more than planned in June 2010. In view of this record, it would be unwise for Labour to make any hard and fast commitments until the latest moment possible. Balls has gone as far as banning shadow cabinet ministers from saying which cuts they would keep for fear of creating the impression that Labour will be able to reverse all of the others.
But with a Spending Review due to be held later this year, the coalition will begin to challenge Labour to say whether it would match its post-election spending plans, as it did with the Conservatives' in 1997. With little fanfare, the Liberal Democrats have accepted George Osborne's fiscal envelope (which now extends to 2018), if not all of his proposed cuts. For instance, while Clegg successfully rejected Osborne's bid to secure £10bn of additional welfare cuts, limiting the Chancellor to £3.8bn, he did not question the assumption that £10bn of further austerity was necessary, merely that all the savings needed to come from welfare. Whether or not Labour should adopt the same approach is the biggest decision Balls and Miliband will make before the election. A pledge to match the Tories' spending limits would insulate Labour from the charge that it is planning a tax or borrowing "bombshell" but it would enrage the left and the trade unions. I'll have more on this in my column in tomorrow's magazine.