How the media loves mixed messages (when they suit their own message)

by Stephen Tall on October 10, 2010

‘Conservative spending cuts are worse than Thatcher’s, says Alan Johnson’ shouts today’s Observer, reporting the paper’s interview with Labour’s incoming shadow chancellor.

If the election had turned out differently — if Labour had won, rather than suffering one of the worst defeats in its history — the headline could have read a little different… Imagine this headline:

    Alistair Darling: we will cut deeper than Margaret Thatcher

But wait, we don’t have to imagine that headline: it already exists, and was used by the Observer’s stablemate The Guardian back in March when reporting the then Labour chancellor’s realistic appraisal of the current economic situation:

Alistair Darling admitted tonight that Labour’s planned cuts in public spending will be “deeper and tougher” than Margaret Thatcher’s in the 1980s, as the country’s leading experts on tax and spending warned that Britain faces “two parliaments of pain” to repair the black hole in the state’s finances.

Cuts that would have been ‘worse than Thatcher’s’ under a Labour chancellor six months ago, are now judged to be solely the Coalition’s fault by the current Labour shadow chancellor. That’s what I call a mixed message… so it’s more than a little ironic for the Observer to suggest that Lib Dem cabinet ministers Chris Huhne and Danny Alexander were themselves sending out mixed messages:

Today the coalition appeared to be giving out mixed messages on the economy after the energy secretary, Chris Huhne, said cuts could be scaled back if economic conditions deteriorate. Later, however, the chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, told the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference the planned cuts were “unavoidable”.

I’ve looked hard, but I cannot see the contradiction. Of course, the planned cuts are unavoidable — even Labour in opposition accepts that, more or less. The political argument at the moment is over the timing, and the exact allocation of deficit reduction between spending cuts and tax rises. As for the detail, we must await the new Labour leader’s views: certainly we’re none the wiser from the party’s leadership election.

Chris Huhne, for all that he is identified with the social liberal wing of the party, is an economist by background, and something of a deficit hawk within the government, the first Lib Dem cabinet minister to join the ‘Star Chamber’ scrutinising the forthcoming budget cuts.

He would be the first to say the cuts are unavoidable. But he would also point out what is surely no more than obvious: that no government sets its budgets for the whole Parliament without paying attention to the prevailing economic conditions. And I can’t imagine Danny Alexander disagreeing with that.

Whether Alistair Darling and Alan Johnson are in such close harmony we shall see in the coming months.