Just How Painful Are the Cuts Going to Be? Don't Ask Them; ECONOMICS ANALYSIS

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Byline: Hugo Duncan

THE credibility of the three men vying for the keys to Number 11 was at stake during the Ask the Chancellors debate last night.

Alistair Darling, George Osborne and Vince Cable set out to show voters and the financial markets why they should be trusted with securing the economic recovery and reducing Britain's yawning debts. Cable was the studio audience's and the viewers' favourite on the night but his Labour and Conservative opponents did not do badly.

There were no banana skins -- which for Osborne in particular was a relief -- given Labour's claims that he is the Tory party's "weakest link" and the mutterings within his own party that he is not up to the job.

But just how believable were their policies for cutting the national deficit, which will hit [pounds sterling]167 billion this year -- comprising a record 11.8% of gross domestic product? Osborne was put to the test after he pledged to cut the deficit faster than Labour while at the same time cancelling Labour's proposed rise in National Insurance at a cost of [pounds sterling]5.6 billion a year.

He said the tax break would be paid for by making "efficiency savings" immediately rather than carrying on with inefficient spending as Darling planned to do for another year. Cable won the first round of applause of the night when he described efficiency savings planned by Labour and the Tories as "complete fiction". Credibility was in short supply and the audience knew it.

There was also plenty to agree on. All three said there would be very difficult choices to make and warned that spending cuts will be deeper than under Margaret Thatcher in the Eighties. They also left the door open for further tax rises.

But there was one question they refused to answer.

"Instead of hiding behind a smokescreen of rhetoric and patronising the electorate," said a member of the Channel 4 audience, "why don't you come clean about what you are going to cut, by how much and when?" That, sadly, was wishful thinking. Pensions and wages for public-sector workers must be controlled, banks and bankers punished, and waste abolished, they all agreed. Beyond that all we got was another smokescreen of rhetoric and some more patronising of the electorate. …