To their very great credit, in tonight’s third and final debate, neither Nick Clegg nor David Cameron tried to make political mileage out of Gordon Brown’s dreadful ‘bigoted woman’ gaffe, a gaffe now circling the globe and quite possibly entering permanent geostationary orbit, so widely reported has it been. I have difficulty imagining any Australian political leader from either side of politics behaving with similar decency. Brown’s only reference to the whole sorry episode was also dignified. ‘There is a lot to this job,’ he said, ‘and, as you saw yesterday, I don’t get all of it right.’
With that reminder that British politics sometimes evinces what can be described as the best in us, in this debate, the three men clashed over the economy. At times it became almost vitriolic, especially over immigration and welfare. Licensed since yesterday to talk about immigration in a way that has been unheard of in recent British political history, Cameron and Clegg clashed bitterly, while Brown was sidelined once again. The Lib Dems favour high immigration (consistent with their other often libertarian ideas), the Tories want to cut it, and clearly resent the loss of sovereignty that membership of the EU entails for their preferred policy.
Cameron and Brown really scrapped over the government’s role in the economy, however, and there was one extraordinary moment where the real ideological fissure between left and right was exposed for all to see: when David Cameron told a disbelieving Brown that ‘the government and the economy are not the same thing’. This gave Nick Clegg something of a free pass to outline his party’s policies, where he repeated in abbreviated form most of the arguments DeusExMacintosh made in her post on Liberal Democrat tax policy: incentives to get people off benefits, an understanding that it is often more lucrative to stay on welfare for the poor thanks to the low tax free threshold and high effective marginal tax rates, and a moving description of constituents in his surgeries in tears after they had mishandled the ridiculous complexities of Labour’s tax credit system.
There was some unreconstructed banker-bashing from all three, and some nostalgia for a Britain that ‘made things’ once again. Even Clegg – who has been most willing to use economic terminology throughout the campaign, presumably borrowed from Vince Cable – seemed unwilling to explain comparative advantage: the world has changed and Britain will not have mills again until wages in China are comparable to our own.
No-one seemed bold enough to address the fact that Britain’s level of public debt is catastrophic, so much so that attempts to ring-fence the NHS, education and policing may well lead to extraordinary increases in income tax (and tax more generally). Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England and a figure respected on all sides of politics has suggested that whoever was in power by 2015 would have to raise the basic rate of income tax by 6p to reduce the budget deficit down towards 3 per cent. The Tories are historically more willing to cut the size of government (even though this is a promise on which they have often failed to deliver), and the LibDem tax policies would greatly reduce the welfare bill, but that is just the beginning of what needs to be done. King thinks that we will hate the next ten years, regardless of who is in power. Britons are discovering that we are not as rich as we thought we were, and that many of the ‘goodies’ we have become used to government providing are simply unsustainable:
Mr King has kept an ultra-low profile during the election, but he has said in the past that budget deficit forecasts for the next few years are “very large” and that the new Government will have to come up with a credible plan.
There is growing concern that none of the main parties has come close to spelling out the scale of the spending cuts and tax increases needed to bring the books closer into balance.
That would be on top of cutting spending by an extra £30 billion in spending cuts and raising taxes to meet current targets. NIESR thinks the further tightening, in addition to what are expected to be the deepest cuts for half a century, is needed because the Government has been too optimistic about its economic assumptions. Simon Kirby, one of the report’s authors, said: “It will be a shock and very painful for almost everyone.”
Some sense of the magnitude of the ‘black hole’ finally came clear about half-way through the debate, when Clegg and Cameron both conceded that efficiency savings would simply not do it, and Clegg began to use the words ‘black hole’, which the other two men immediately copied.
With respect to who ‘won’ the debate, once again I put Cameron slightly ahead of Clegg, and both Cameron and Clegg well ahead of Brown. This also seems to be the developing poll reaction, although I will need to wait for a few hours to see what the betting markets do in response. Brown was also desperately tired, and the frequency with which he stumbled over his words (not something Brown usually does; he may not be a charismatic speaker, but he is always clear) suggested to me that in the wake of yesterday’s train wreck, he hadn’t slept. A couple of times the camera got close enough to his face to reveal the amount of make-up around his eyes: the BBC appeared to have used a whole pan stick on him.
Still, the thing that will stay with me is the refusal of Cameron and Clegg to get down and roll around in the mud, along with Brown’s genuine frankness. Neither, I suspect, will garner any of them any extra votes, but that is by the by. To see politicians behaving honourably is a rare treat, and should be highlighted. To see it also treated as par for the course (in the press) suggests that there is life in the old lion yet, and that some of the better angels of our nature are sometimes to be found in unexpected places.
Even, perhaps, in politics.
[DISCLOSURE: The author is a member of the Oxford Conservative Association]
[UPDATE: Betfair analysis -- Labour vote appears to be collapsing in favour of the LibDems in marginal constituencies.]