The fallout from the Autumn Statement and the focus on the cuts the Tories would make means that Labour is feeling better about its position on the economy than it has done for months. Voter anxiety about the threat to public services, they believe, could turn the election in their favour. In a sign of this new confidence, Ed Miliband led on the issue (on which the Conservatives have long held the advantage) at the final PMQs of the year. Noting that it was the Office for Budget Responsibility that first drew attention to the fact that public spending would fall to its lowest level since the 1930s under George Osborne’s plans, he quipped: “Why does he believe the OBR has joined the BBC in a conspiracy against the Conservative Party?” Having been criticised in the past by Labour MPs for dropping messages too quickly, Miliband is determined to keep pushing the “1930s” line.
Cameron replied that in real-terms public spending would merely fall to the same level as in 2002-03, but Miliband had a neat riposte: “He’s spent four years saying we spent too much. Now he’s saying we spent too little.” The PM later turned to the deficit and the fact that Labour’s plans would allow greater borrowing than the Conservatives’. But Ed Balls’s pledge to cut the deficit every year and the Tories’ promise of £7bn of unfunded tax cuts means that Miliband is better-armed than in the past. As well as creating a sense of risk around public services, Labour is now able to point to the danger of another VAT rise: something Cameron notably refused to rule out today. The PM was able to turn the leaked Labour strategy document on immigration to his advantage, highlighting its reference to the Conservatives’ 17-point lead on managing the economy. But Miliband remained unruffled. The Labour leader never quite landed a knock-out blow. Yet given that the ecnomy is traditionally the Tories’ strongest suit, and today’s positive employment and earnings figures, Miliband will be content with a points victory.
The two men’s closing exchange neatly framed the battle to come: Miliband charged the Tories with a plan not for “balancing the books” but for “slashing the state”. Cameron declared: “They can’t talk about the deficit because it’s fallen, they can’t talk about growth because it’s rising, they can’t talk about jobs because we’re increasing them.” Miliband’s aim is to persuade voters that the threat to public services is too great to award the Tories another term in government. Cameron’s is to persuade them that the threat to growth and jobs is too great to gamble on an untested opposition. The election will likely turn on which scenario voters fear more.