It was supposed to be George Osborne’s great trap for Labour. In his recent Autumn Statement, the Chancellor promised an updated Charter for Budget Responsibility committing the government (and in theory a Labour administration) to an aggressive pace of deficit reduction. He said: “Next week we will publish a new Charter for Budget Responsibility that will reinforce our commitment to finish the job in the next Parliament, and we will ask the House to vote on it in the new year.”
The implicit aim was to force Labour to either match his plans, and commit itself to billions of pounds of additional cuts (something which wouldn’t be well received by the left and the trade unions), or to oppose them and be denounced as fiscally irresponsible. Such was the pre-briefing around the move that there was speculation Osborne would publish the new Charter immediately after the Autumn Statement and stage a vote the following day. The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement downgraded this to “next week”, with the vote to follow in the new year. But the week referred to by Osborne has now been and gone and the promised Charter still hasn’t been published.
This delay follows confusion over what target MPs would be invited to vote on (as I reported last month). In his Budget in March, Osborne suggested that it would be on his commitment to achieve an overall surplus by the end of the next parliament. But later briefing suggested it would be on the alternative target of eliminating the structural current deficit by 2017-18. This aim, unlike that of a surplus, is endorsed by the Lib Dems. But with Nick Clegg’s party focused on differentiating itself from the Tories (even as it prepares for another coalition), it was unclear whether it would be prepared to line up with the Tories. Without support from the Lib Dems, Osborne would be unable to achieve a majority for the Charter. Whatever the reason for the delay (I am awaiting comment from the Treasury), Labour has been quick to pounce. The shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Chris Leslie said:
In the Budget George Osborne was talking about a vote on balancing the overall budget. Then last month the Treasury tried to lay the ground for a big u-turn by briefing that the vote would only be on balancing the current budget, excluding capital investment.
And now, after all the hype and promises that a new Charter would have been published over the last week, the government has totally failed to publish anything. This is a total mess. As ever, these so called Tory traps are backfiring on the Chancellor.
Labour has set out a tough but balanced approach to get the current budget into surplus and the national debt falling as soon as possible in the next Parliament.
Our first election pledge announced this week is that we will balance the books and cut the deficit every year, while securing the future of our NHS. This will require sensible spending cuts in non-protected areas, fairer choices including reversing the Tory tax cut for millionaires and a plan to deliver the rising living standards and stronger growth needed to balance the books.
In contrast the Tories are pursuing an increasingly unbalanced and extreme approach. They have chosen to pencil in even deeper spending cuts, which would return public spending to a share of GDP last seen in the 1930s.
They are refusing to ask those with the broadest shoulders to make a greater contribution and ignoring the need for a plan to deliver the rising living standards that are vital to getting the deficit down. And they have now made £7 billion of unfunded tax promises, which can only be paid for by even deeper cuts to public spending or another Tory VAT rise.
George Osborne should spend less time playing silly political games and more time sorting out the economy and trying to make his sums add up.