The Tories cynically veto Balls's plan to allow the OBR to audit Labour's manifesto

Osborne is determined to claim that there is a "black hole" in Labour's spending plans, whatever the Office for Budget Responsibility may say.

One of the biggest obstacles to a Labour victory at the next election remains the lack of economic trust in the party. Three years after David Cameron and George Osborne entered office, it is still blamed more for the spending cuts than the coalition (owing to "the mess" it left in 2010) and viewed as fiscally irresponsible. With Labour likely to pledge to invest significantly more than the coalition in housing and other infrastructure projects (while abiding by George Osborne's day-to-day spending totals), it is politically vital to shift this perception.

That is the task that Ed Balls has set himself for his speech today in which he will announce that he has asked the Office for Budget Responsibility to audit every tax and spending pledge in Labour's election manifesto. Balls will say:

In tough times it's even more important that all our policies and commitments are properly costed and funded.

The British people rightly want to know that the sums add up. So we will go one step further and ask the independent Office for Budget Responsibility – the watchdog set up by this government – to independently audit the costings of every individual spending and tax measure in Labour's manifesto at the next election.

This is the first time a Shadow Chancellor - the first time any political party in Britain - has ever said it wants this kind of independent audit. A radical change from what's gone before, but the right thing to do to help restore trust in politics.

It's a smart move that provides Ed Miliband with some political cover ahead of his speech tomorrow, which is likely to include major spending commitments on housing. But, crucially, Balls's plan would require an extension of the OBR's remit, which does not currently allow it to scrutinise the opposition's fiscal policies. Any change to this would require the approval of parliament, with number-cruncher-in-chief Robert Chote emphasising that a "cross-party consensus" is "highly desirable".

But just 17 minutes after Balls's announcement, the Tories put paid to any hope of securing one, with Sajid Javid, the increasingly prominent Economic Secretary to the Treasury, declaring:

Ed Balls knows this is not allowed under the Budget Responsibility Act and the OBR's charter, so this is just a stunt to try and distract attention from the fact that Labour have been found out for making unfunded commitments that would just mean more borrowing and more debt.

Nothing has changed - it's the same old Labour. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls still want more spending, more borrowing, and more debt - exactly how they got us into this mess in the first place. And it's hardworking people who would pay the price through higher taxes and higher mortgage rate.

The Tories' decision to torpedo Balls's plan is entirely politically motivated. There is no reason in principle why they should refuse to allow the watchdog founded by Osborne in 2010 to audit Labour's policies. But there are plenty of political ones. The Tories are understandably reluctant to allow Labour to enhance its fiscal credibility and to repeal claims of a "black hole" in its plans.

Tonight, Balls's SpAd Alex Belardinelli has rightly responded by asking how the Tories intend to justify their opposition to the proposal.

It will be worth watching to see how Osborne's team respond when independent figures, dedicated to encouraging evidence-based policy, deplore their cynicism.

George Osborne and Ed Balls attend the State Opening of Parliament, in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster in London May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage