George Osborne got in something of a twist this morning on Today when explaining the difference between the Tories and Labour on cutting the deficit.
Alistair Darling apparently refused to turn up. The introduction made it look as thought Darling had flunked it. The result - Osborne was forced to explain how he would cut the deficit and the spotlight was on him as prospective Chancellor.
Between Osborne and his interviewer Evan Davis, some interesting points came out.
* Osborne refused to give details of how the Tories will specifically cut the deficit, on the one hand defensively saying "we will set out more detail in our own time, we want to keep the public informed" whilst criticising Labour for having "no credible plan for cutting the deficit".
* Osborne is "waiting for the analysis of the fiscal implications of the budget from the Institute for Fiscal Studies" before setting out details of how the Tories will cut the deficit.
* The Tories will cut "the bulk of the deficit over the next Parliament, which is the same as the Governor of the Bank of England"... and surely the Government who announced, in similar - perhaps more detail - that they plan to cut the deficit by more than half over the next four years.
* Tories will "go beyond cutting the deficit by two thirds" - but he failed to express how. Osborne referred continually to the Tories having a "credible plan", without elaborating. "I am not going to go into the plan today - but people will have further details - people will know what they are voting for. We want a mandate for a government that will cut the deficit and get this economy moving again".
* Evans rightly challenged Osborne that most of the emphasis from the Tories will be on controlling spending, not tackling deficit via taxation. Darling's efforts are focused mainly on controlling spending too, he just can't talk about it: Labour are focusing on 67% of deficit control from spending cuts; Tories focusing on 80% of deficit control on spending cuts. Amounts to £5bn difference in government spending, or 1% of Government spending.
* Osborne: cause of problems "bloated government spending, out of control departments, no proper audit of where money goes in government, poor productivity". What about the bankers and credit crunch?
* Government "cannot convince anyone they have credible plan... need a government that can instil confidence in international community and domestic community". But where is the Tory plan?
* If NHS budget is ring-fenced - what cuts will transport, universities face? IFS anticipates 16 - 25% cuts. "If I had more information about the public finances, it would make it easier".
A pretty poor performance by Osborne. Terribly policy light this close to an election. I can't put it any better than Janet Daly (not a columnist I would normally quote) in the Telegraph:
"What became clear was that the Tories simply were not willing to enunciate any clear, concise distinction between their approach to the economic crisis and that of the Government. Talking in vague terms of energy and vision (time for a change) cuts no ice against the proposition that Labour clearly intends to put at the centre of its election campaign: we are the grown-up, responsible team who have seen you through this crisis - so the last thing you want is change for its own sake."
This could be a key feature of this election campaign. A Labour Party so often pilloried for a lack of substance over spin taken on by a Conservative Party heavy on spin and light on substance. Whoever goes for detail, convincing detail over spin at the debates will gain alot. It may be too late for the Tories, who had enjoyed the complacency of soaring poll ratings for so long, to flesh out the detail now.
PREDICTION: Conservative majority of 15
I am revising my prediction down somewhat. Interesting poll today of marginals: detail in full here:
The first in a series of polls in key marginal constituencies, our new poll for Reuters suggests that the Conservatives are doing slightly better in the marginals than nationally, but not enough to guarantee a majority.
Later polls will track voting intention and turnout in these key battleground areas during the campaign.
Voting intention in these key marginal constituencies is Con 37, Lab 41, LD 11% (among those who are certain to vote). Assuming uniform swing, this would result in a hung Parliament with the Conservatives as the biggest party.
This four point Labour lead represents a 5% swing to the Conservatives in this band of key marginal constituencies, compared to the 4% swing at a national level that we have just recorded on our March Political Monitor.
Nevertheless, everything is still to play for, since almost half the public (46%), and more than a third of those who are certain they will vote, say they may still change their mind about which party to vote for. Labour and Conservative voters are more likely to say they have definitely decided who to vote for (60% and 59% respectively) than Lib Dem voters (23%); this leads a lot of scope for tactical voting by Liberal Democrats, in these constituencies where it could easily be decisive.