Magazine article Public Finance

Once More Unto the Breach

Magazine article Public Finance

Once More Unto the Breach

Article excerpt

THE PERSONAL HAS always been political and this year's round of party conferences turns out to be no exception. In between questions about the prune minister's state of health and counter attacks about the Conservative leader's privileged background, we are now truly into the politics of the playground. It seems the next election will be fought as much on personalities and presentation as it is on policies.

Labour's conference has been typical of a party that knows its time in office is probably coming to an end. Aside from empty seats on the conference floor and trouble selling commercial stands, all the talk is of when and how Gordon Brown will go, rather than if he will go. Losing power is a messy business for any party as a host of new contenders battle behind the scenes to step into the dead man's shoes.

Next week's Conservative conference, on the other hand, promises to be an upbeat affair. Lobbyists, pressure groups, think-tanks, the media - all eyes are now on David Cameron's party as it appears to be the government in waiting. Aside from the grandstanding speeches and media gossip, much of the real business of conference will happen, as ever, on the sidelines. Fringe meetings, dinners and private briefings with shadow ministers will all help to shape the manifesto and the ideas that will take centre stage during the election campaign.

But, in spite of the manoeuvres of spin doctors dominating the headlines, voters are more interested in what a new government would do about the economy, improving financial regulation, and dealing with public service reform than they are about the personal backgrounds of the party leaders.

The spectre of Tory cuts, which is being employed by Labour, indeed has a resonance for some voters who are worried that the Conservatives will use the economic crisis as a ready excuse to 'slash and burn' public services. But, in reality, whoever wins the next election will have the unenviable job of making substantial cuts to the public sector. According to the Pre-Budget Report and Budget, fiscal tightening will begin next year and mount gradually over eight years to 6.4% of national income or around ?90bn a year in today's terms from 2017/18 onwards.

George Osborne, the Conservative shadow chancellor, argues that the process should be quicker, starting from next year. …

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