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5 November 2019

Rejoice! The Conservatives have been blocked from using taxpayers’ money to attack Labour

Using civil servants' time to help government is an old and possibly ineradicable problem, but the Tories have been blocked from using Treasury costings against Labour. 

By Stephen Bush

The Conservatives have been left frustrated after the Cabinet Secretary, Mark Sedwill, refused to publish Treasury costings of nine Labour party policies. Unveiling a series of dire warnings either about the level that taxes will go up or that spending on public services will go down is a political trick as old as the hills in British politics, but it’s a thoroughly disreputable one: not because of its effectiveness, but because we all pay taxes to fund the work of the Treasury.

There is an unavoidable overlap between the civil service helping the government of the day enact its programme, and the civil service helping the government of the day stay in power. But once you have civil servants working on costings that have no real function this side of an election other than to help the incumbent government, then a line has very obviously been crossed, and to no direct benefit to me as a citizen and resident of the United Kingdom.

Stranger still is the fact that it is hard to see why – other than “we’ve always done it this way, the other side did it too and therefore I should get my unfair advantage as well” – governments still do this. The political power of the message that “Labour will spend money like there is no tomorrow” rests entirely on two things: the level of public trust and affection people hold the Prime Minister and Chancellor in, and the level of public trust and affection people hold the Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Chancellor in.

The Conservatives have a big advantage here, in that while Sajid Javid is not especially well-known among the public, people who can identify him tend to quite like him, and that while Boris Johnson is historically unpopular, Jeremy Corbyn is too. One (or both) of Johnson or Corbyn might change that during the campaign, but at the moment, a row about economic policy between Javid and John McDonnell has only one winner.

That remains true whether the numbers have been cooked up at the taxpayer’s expense or if a staffer at CCHQ has put together a spreadsheet on Excel. The only thing that has changed is that, happily, public spending is not being used to advantage the Conservative Party electorally. What matters is that Sajid Javid, the literal Chancellor and the most popular Conservative politician, is going to stand up and attack the Opposition’s spending plans.

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But it speaks to a broader, and perhaps ineradicable, problem: how do you deal with the fact that the incumbent government always starts with the hefty advantage that it is the incumbent government?  It’s an advantage that comes with an attached price: that the incumbent government also gets blamed for a lot of stuff that simply isn’t its fault, but, more often than not, incumbency is a pretty great asset to have in an election campaign.

Part of the answer lies in one of the underappreciated constitutional changes brought about by the coalition, the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, which sets the minimum length of an election campaign at 25 days (effectively six weeks). In effect, this gives the Opposition parties a longer run-up to erode that advantage. And that’s a far bigger (and welcome) problem for any government than whether Sajid Javid’s attacks on Jeremy Corbyn come with a “Treasury approved” sticker attached.

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