Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Ask the Chancellors

With the recession as it is inevitably the economy has taken something of a first priority. As such Channel 4 showed a debate between the three candidates for Chancellor of the Exchequer last night: Alistair Darling, current Chancellor, George Osborne, Conservative Shadow Chancellor, and Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat Spokesman on the Treasury (it can be viewed here if you missed it). If you are expecting huge arguments then you are in for a disappointment, the proceedings were very dry, and not at all bombastic. In some senses this was to be expected. The Chancellorship is a position that people like to feel is in the hands of someone very serious, and hardworking. The position attracts quiet, intelligent men who project stability and competence. It attracts Gordon Browns; it does not attract Tony Blairs. The public generally prefers for the Chancellor to be someone who projects the stereotype of an accountant, rather than the salesmanship that is generally desired of a Prime Ministerial candidate. There was also a large degree of consensus on display between the three men. Cable, Darling and Osborne all agreed that a combination of spending cuts and tax rises was necessary; the question was where, when and how. Here is a summation of the three men's performance.

Alistair Darling

Hot off the heels of Wednesday's budget Darling's goal was clear: to defend his time in office and to create a narrative about Osborne's capabilities. Darling was clearly attempted to contrast himself with Osborne, declaring that he was taking a cautious, rational approach whereas Osborne's approach was 'dangerous'. As Darling's policies are mostly already known (the budget is a well publicised event) this freed him up to make attacks on Osborne. We were told that Labour was following the international consensus, and that it was trying to be fair, targeting tax rises at the rich. While Osborne attacked Darling back I feel Darling was largely able to repel his attacks.

George Osborne

Osborne somewhat pre-empted the debate with a new announcement: if the Conservatives win the election they will not implement Labour's planned increase in National Insurance for those earning less than 45k a year. Darling was quick to refer to the plan as too radical and dangerous. Osborne prioritised pushing himself as the candidate of 'change', but Darling's attacks were frequent and some unfortunately stuck. One accusation that seemed to work badly for Osborne was when he was accused of 'flip-flopping', for instance declaring himself in favour of a tax on bank profits, and being reminded that he'd only recently changed his mind on it. However Osborne largely succeeded in projecting himself as competent nonetheless.

Vince Cable

Cable seemed to remain largely above the fray. Neither Darling nor Osborne really seemed to attack him in any way. Maybe this is because he's been seen by many as a sort of prophet of the financial crisis and they viewed it as possible it could backfire on them. Perhaps it was because as the Liberal Democrat they simply did not see Cable as worth attacking, or they desired to see him squeezed out of the narrative. It is also true that the kind of attacks made on Osborne by Darling are not so easy on Cable as Liberal Democrat economics policy has been much more stable, consistent and clear than Conservative policy, and has also been fully costed making accusations of negligence difficult. Cable's priorities appeared to be to push his policies (especially his much vaunted plan to raise the personal allowance to ten thousand pounds) and to remind voters of his much vaunted 'prophet' status. In this he was largely successful to my mind.

All in all the debate was an entertaining, if dry, affair and an interesting preamble to the much anticipated prime ministerial debates.


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