It takes a lot of nerve to accuse your opponents of profligacy when the country is in the red by more than £90bn and you have missed your deficit reduction targets by a country mile.
That, though, was George Osborne’s strategy as he kicked off the Conservative party’s 2015 election campaign with a claim that Labour’s spending pledges of £23bn made it unfit for office. The choice for the electorate in May was between competence and chaos, the chancellor said.
Despite being given the appearance and feel of the Treasury’s budget red book, Osborne’s 82-page dossier was in truth a bit dodgy. It was greeted with undisguised scepticism by the media, who quickly damned it as flawed.
Problem number one with “a cost analysis of Labour party policy” is its composition. Some of the spending pledges Osborne identified are not actually official opposition policy. In other cases it is assumed that criticising what the government is doing automatically involves a spending commitment. Labour has, for example, attacked plans for cuts in local government spending in 2015-16, but it has not pledged to reverse them.
Problem number two is that the Conservatives assume that all Labour’s spending plans would be implemented from day one of a Miliband government. Ed Balls, however, has made it clear that he would stick to Osborne’s spending totals for 2015-16. Labour frontbenchers will only have more money to spend if the economy performs better than expected, if there are tax increases or if savings can be found elsewhere.
As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out, Labour has been the most cautious of the main parties when it comes to pre-election giveaways, and the shadow chancellor is unpopular with some in his party for this very reason. The fact that the IFS - the accepted arbiter of tax, spending and borrowing matters in the UK - has taken this line is the third reason not to take the Osborne dossier at face value.
In the end, though, politics is as much about perception as it is about fact.
Opinion polls suggest that voters are receptive to the argument that Labour left the economy and public finances in an awful mess in 2010. If Osborne can keep debate focused on spending, tax and borrowing he is likely to benefit, no matter whether all his claims stack up or not.
The first shot in the Tory campaign probably won’t give Balls too many sleepless nights. It was, though, just the opening salvo in a long war of attrition.
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