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11 November 2019

The Conservatives’ economic argument now relies on exaggerating Labour’s spending

Having embraced higher borrowing and reneged on austerity, the Tories are gambling that this election is just about Brexit. 

By Stephen Bush

The Conservatives have rolled out a dossier, purporting to show that Labour have made spending commitments totalling more than a trillion pounds of extra spending.
The reality is that the dossier is a weird chimera of policy proposals made by Labour party conference which the Labour leadership has rejected – such as the abolition of private schools – and is predicated on the assumption that every policy Labour has proposed would spring into life the moment that Jeremy Corbyn entered Downing Street.
Which is somewhat bizarre given that, if the Conservatives want to fight this election running against large Labour spending increases, they don’t need to cook the books to do so – the Opposition is incredibly upfront about its plans to increase infrastructure spending by £55bn, £30bn more than the Tories’ own planned increase in infrastructure spending. Added to that, Labour plans to increase public spending by around £50bn – again, well above the Conservatives’ own planned spending increases.
If the Tories want to attack Labour spending, they don’t need to fiddle a single figure. Except: the problem is that while we can all get our heads round the fact that £55bn of extra spending is more than £20bn of extra spending, it’s far from clear why the former is a big scary number that will wreck the economy and the latter is a big, reassuring number that will fix the United Kingdom’s infrastructure and public sector problems.
That’s why the Conservatives think they need to inflate that Labour figure above a trillion – because arguing the toss between a billion here and a billion there means nothing to most people. You can see the risk that the likes of Liz Truss privately warned about during the Conservative leadership campaign: that having made the decision to spend significantly more and move away from the language of austerity and balanced budgets, all the Tories have left is arguing about why their set of big, incomprehensible spending figures are fine and good but Labour’s big set of incomprehensible spending figures are bad and terrifying.
That might work if it comes down to a question of who to trust more, Sajid Javid or John McDonnell. And if it means that voters decide that whoever wins this election, austerity is over, freeing them up to vote on Brexit lines, that is good news for the Tories too.
But that the Conservatives’ economic argument is now based on funny calculations and double-counting underlines the risk the party has taken if this becomes an election about anything other than Brexit. They’ve made a conscious decision to eliminate all other lines of attack – which is fine as long as the election goes according to plan. If it starts going wrong, then they may regret the lack of a fallback. 

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