Why do Labour and the Tories want to fight the next election on the same question?

The Budget showed both parties want a debate about austerity and who could best promote economic recovery. 

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Rishi Sunak has delivered his Budget, setting out plans to extend and then taper off coronavirus support towards the end of the year as the country unlocks, followed by cuts and historic tax increases.  

We are now beginning to see the shape of the political debate for the years to come. As the FT’s George Parker writes of Rishi Sunak's plans, and as I wrote of Keir Starmer’s response yesterday, both the Conservatives and Labour are setting out their stalls for the years ahead, and, in a rare occurrence in the world of politics, both sides want the debate to be on the same terrain. 

[Hear more from Ailbhe on the New Statesman podcast]

Sunak’s statement saw him making the case for a return to austerity, albeit mainly in the shape of historic tax rises, with careful language to insist that the Conservatives are the “party of public services”, while not increasing the already-squeezed budgets of justice and local government. (Labour has already highlighted that the Budget amounts to a £30 billion cut to NHS funding, and Anoosh Chakelian has more on the built-in austerity of the Budget.) The Chancellor’s argument for fiscal prudence after the initial crisis was then sprinkled with the language of “levelling up” and green, science-focused investment: a handful of freeports here, a huge tax break for private investment in plant and machinery there, a new Treasury campus in Darlington as the cherry on top. 

That’s the broad outline of the Conservative case going forward, with Sunak repeatedly emphasising that he has only been able to provide support during the crisis thanks to the “sound public finances” left by David Cameron and George Osborne.   

The Labour view is precisely the opposite: that we went into this crisis with a lack of economic resilience due to a “decade of neglect” by the Conservatives, and that the current government has no serious plan to address all of the vulnerabilities and inequalities in our economy exposed by the pandemic. They point to the lack of a plan for social care, insufficient investment for the recovery, and, beyond immediate holes such as when the Universal Credit uplift ends, a wider failure to plan boldly for the future. 

Keir Starmer painted Rishi Sunak yesterday as the big bad wolf, willing to impose even meaner cuts going forward. That is, funnily enough, not far from the message the Chancellor himself wants to project: not someone cutting valued public services, but someone prepared to taking tough decisions and with a plan to balance the books. It’s a return to that old favourite: a battle between Labour spending and Conservative austerity. Both sides want a fight about the Conservatives handling of public finances and who could lead the recovery better. But only one of them can win. That paradox is the one explored by Stephen Bush's column in this week's magazine, and the one we'll all be observing for years to come.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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