The UK Chancellor on Tuesday mocked the opposition Labour party for supporting a target for the next government to eliminate the country’s gaping budget deficit, while refusing to explain how it might do so.
Presenting a “charter for budget responsibility” to the Commons, the chancellor accused Labour of trying to “perpetrate a grand deceit on the British public” by refusing to come clean over its deficit reduction plans.
“With the Labour party is it a tax bombshell or a borrowing bombshell, which is it going to be?,” asked the chancellor to cheers from the Tory benches. “Either way, it is a disaster for this country.”
Ed Balls, shadow chancellor, refused to be drawn into detailing proposed spending cuts and tax rises under a future Labour government — but insisted that Labour supported the motion because it was “fully consistent” with the party’s plan to eliminate the current spending deficit “as soon as possible” in the next Parliament.
He also suggested that Mr Osborne was himself trying to wriggle out of the coalition’s agreed 2017-18 deadline for eliminating the deficit given that there was no mention of this specific deadline in the charter.
Instead, the chancellor has committed to eliminate the current account deficit in the third year of a rolling five-year cycle. “It is baffling it is not in there,” said Mr Balls.
Mr Balls also criticised the chancellor for making “blatantly untrue” remarks about his deficit reduction plans, adding that Mr Osborne had missed his 2010 target to balance the books by 2015 and instead borrowed a further £200bn.
Mr Osborne is determined to flush out more detail from Labour on how it intends to eliminate the current structural deficit, while Mr Balls has been anxious to avoid giving specific plans.
Mr Balls refuses to say what tax/spending split Labour would use in government — the coalition has adopted a ratio of about 80/20 — or to specify in any detail what taxes he would raise to help cut borrowing.
The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies says that Labour’s promise to reduce spending cuts could imply borrowing up to £50bn more a year by 2020 than the Conservatives.
Labour has set out a number of tax rises — for example a bank bonus levy, a so-called mansion tax on expensive homes and higher corporation tax, as well as a crackdown on tax avoidance — but in virtually all cases the revenue has already been earmarked to fund additional spending.
The main exception is the restoration of the 50p top rate of income tax for people earning £150,000 or more, although there is great debate about how much revenue that would raise — especially as avoidance might increase.
Chris Leslie, shadow Treasury chief secretary, struggled to name other examples of where Labour would raise taxes to cut borrowing, telling the BBC’s Andrew Neil that Labour had “talked about gun licence changes”. Tories claimed this would raise only £17.2m, or 0.019 per cent, of the £91bn deficit.
Mr Balls has, however, committed to cutting spending in “unprotected” departments every year until the deficit is eliminated; he also claims that some inroads into the deficit can be made simply by making the economy run more efficiently.
Mr Osborne later told Conservatives MPs in a private meeting that this year’s election would be similar to the 1992 contest — won by the Tories — because the main parties had very different spending plans.
David Cameron urged his colleagues to repeat the party’s core economic message, in spite of a claim by some Tory MPs that voters might be bored by polling day on May 7: “Boring is good,” Mr Cameron joked.
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