A good election to lose

If you read nothing else this week, read John Lanchester’s terrific piece about the economic outlook in the current issue of the London Review of Books. In full. Here’s a taster:

The imminence of the general election doesn’t help. Broadly speaking, the circumstances are such that it shouldn’t much matter who wins the election, not in economic terms. The economic realities are harsh and are likely to determine most of what the new government does. Labour have promised to cut the deficit in half within four years. They haven’t spelled out how they are going to do it, and until recently Gordon Brown was talking about ‘Tory cuts versus Labour investment’ – which, given what he must know about what the figures mean, is jaw-droppingly cynical. The reality is that the budget, and the explicit promises of both parties, imply a commitment to cuts of about 11 per cent across the board. Both parties, however, have said that they will ring-fence spending on health, education and overseas development. Plug in those numbers and we are looking at cuts everywhere else of 16 per cent. (By the way, a two-year freeze in NHS spending – which is what Labour have talked about – would be its sharpest contraction in 60 years.)

Cuts of that magnitude have never been achieved in this country. Mrs Thatcher managed to cut some areas of public spending to zero growth; the difference between that and a contraction of 16 per cent is unimaginable. The Institute for Fiscal Studies – which admittedly specialises in bad news of this kind – thinks the numbers are, even in this dire prognosis, too optimistic. It makes less optimistic assumptions about the growth of the economy, preferring not to accept the Treasury’s rose-coloured figure of 2.75 per cent. Plugging these less cheerful growth estimates into its fiscal model, the guesstimate for the cuts, if the ring-fencing is enforced, is from 18 to 24 per cent. What does that mean? According to Rowena Crawford, an IFS economist, quoted in the FT: ‘For the Ministry of Defence an 18 per cent cut means something on the scale of no longer employing the army.’ The FT then extrapolates:

At the transport ministry, an 18 per cent reduction would take out more than a third of the department’s grant to Network Rail; a 24 per cent reduction is about equivalent to ending all current and capital expenditure on roads. At the Ministry of Justice an 18 per cent reduction broadly equates to closing all the courts, a 24 per cent cut to shutting two-thirds of all prisons.

This is good blood-curdling stuff. But it is, I think, impossible for anyone to believe that any British government will ever administer cuts in public spending of that order. Getting rid of the army or of the courts? I don’t think so – and yet that’s the magnitude of change promised by the promised assault on public spending. The political parties are doing everything they can to look serious about cutting the deficit, but they won’t go anywhere near specific proposals, and for good reason: to do so would be electoral suicide. That in turn means that even if they wanted to administer this order of cuts, they would have no mandate to do so.

So why all the posturing about the deficit?