PMQs: Nick tackles Gordon on public spending

by Stephen Tall on July 1, 2009

Apologies, dear reader, but I’ve been busy at work rather than watching Prime Minister’s Questions (so that you don’t have to). I will catch up with it later, but I have read the Hansard transcript. And if today’s PMQs is remembered for anything, I suspect it will be for this quite sublime Prime Ministerial line:

… total spending will continue to rise, and it will be a zero per cent. rise in 2013–14.

Yes, you read that right: 0% counts as a rise in total spending in Gordon Brown’s eyes. The Evening Standard’s Paul Waugh (admittedly not a Labour cheerleader) sums up his performance today:

It was worse than that: it was bad in an inept, jaded, so-grey-I-make-John-Major-look-colourful kinda way. This was a man with the stench of decay around him.

Don’t forget that the economy and figures are supposed to be Brown’s strong suit. If he turns in a performance like this, it suggests that the only real reason for keeping him – namely a possible economic recovery for which he will claim credit – is disappearing fast.

If I were a Labour backbencher watching today, I would have my head in my hands.

That’s certainly how it read.

When Nick Clegg’s turn came, he also asked about public spending, linking the issue (in his supplementary) to his newly-adopted policy of scrapping the Trident nuclear weapons system. It was in his first question, though, that I think Nick did best, skewering the tortured efforts of both the Labour and Tory parties to avoid levelling with the British public how they will respond to the economics of recession. Full Hansard transcript of Nick’s exchanges with Gordon follow:

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I first join in welcoming the announcement from Her Majesty today for such a fitting tribute to recognise the bravery and sacrifices of our armed forces.

This afternoon we have seen the bogus debate about public spending hit new lows. I am almost tempted to suggest that Lord Mandelson and the Conservative economic spokesman go on another cruise together to make up. The real failing is that the Conservative party leader wants to cut spending when the economy is still on its knees, which is economic madness, and he will not tell us how; and the Prime Minister is still living in complete denial about the long-term savings that will be needed when the economy starts to recover. Are they not both deliberately choosing to trade insults so that they can both avoid telling the truth?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman does not tell us what his policy is at all. The fact of the matter is that if spending were cut this year, jobs would be lost and services would be put at risk; and if spending were cut next year, jobs would be lost and services would be at risk. We are determined to ensure that spending remains in order to increase job opportunities and to protect home owners, and to make sure that our public services are in place. I hope that he will join our side of the debate in protecting public services for the future.

Mr. Clegg: What the Prime Minister is avoiding once again is the fact that difficult choices on long-term spending need to be made now if we are going to get any grip on the country’s finances. That is why we should admit that we neither need nor can afford to replace Trident. He is planning to sign the first contracts for the new Trident submarines this summer, during the recess when we are all away. Is it not obvious that he should not do that?

The Prime Minister: We have already announced a deficit-reduction plan for the next five years. We have taken difficult decisions about efficiency savings and asset sales, and about raising the top rate of tax: about measures that ensure that people who are in a position to pay more do pay more in the tax system—that is, at the top rate of tax. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will support those measures, which are designed both to reduce the deficit and to ensure that there are sufficient resources for public services. I have already made my position on Trident clear—in the debate on Monday.