What fun to be a new Government. In you bound, full of non-partisan cheer and an unshakeable conviction that you can make the world a better place.
As did the Coalition. Within ten days of taking power, George Osborne had delivered a landmark speech – “not about party interests [but] about the national interest” – in which he announced the creation of a new, independent Office for Budget Responsibility. Such stood to deliver many benefits:
- It would “[w]ith help from a secretariat of civil servants… be in charge of making independent forecasts for the economy and the public finances.”
- It would “remove the temptation to fiddle the figures by giving up control over the economic and fiscal forecast”
- We would become “one of the few advanced economies with an independent fiscal agency that produces official fiscal and economic forecasts.”
And there would be “nowhere to hide the debts, no way to fiddle the figures, and no way of avoiding the difficult choices.”
A marvellous thing.
In opposition, Labour came to wonder whether the OBR might be a route to counteract public scepticism that it could be trusted with the economy. If the political parties were to submit their manifestos to the OBR to be costed, the public might take a less jaundiced view of deliverability. As Robert Chote, Chairman of the OBR, wrote to Andrew Tyrie, Chairman of the Treasury Select Committee:
I believe that independent scrutiny of pre-election policy proposals could contribute to better policy making [and] to a more informed policy debate.
That letter (which is well worth reading) goes on to set out a number of (achievable) pre-conditions to that objective being achieved.
Labour eventually procured a debate on the issue. The motion was:
That this House believes the role of the Office for Budget Responsibility should be enhanced to allow it to independently audit the spending and tax commitments in the general election manifestos of the main political parties, and calls for legislative proposals to enable this to be brought forward at the earliest opportunity.
And it was defeated.
The Conservatives’ position – not unsupported by Robert Chote’s letter – was that any change in the OBR’s remit was temporally too proximate to the general election to be implemented. As the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Nicky Morgan (who opened the debate for the Coalition) (Column 392) put it:
we are not suggesting that the issues that the shadow Chancellor’s proposals present are insurmountable, but we do believe very firmly that the independence and operation of the OBR is critical. We need to make sure that independence and impartiality is preserved, and as such, Parliament would need time to scrutinise the proposals properly and the OBR still needs time to establish itself fully as an independent fiscal watchdog before being drawn into the political heart of a general election.
So not now, but next time.
Nevertheless, we had the cautious beginnings of a political consensus. And by goodness, the electorate needs it. When the FT, not often Pravda for this sort of agitprop, writes
The deficit policies of both main parties blur into one. Forgetfulness or deceit, it does not matter. When the new government opens the books after the election and the truth comes out, voters will think their new rulers are a bunch of liars who were willing to say anything to get elected. They would be right,
then the hour is surely nigh.
If we are to do more than talk about addressing public cynicism about politics, if politicians are to be incentivised to be straight with the electorate, if we are to fight back against the destructive tribalism that passes for public engagement with Government finances, then it is with measures like this that we must start. Technocratic, apolitical but incredibly important.
I shall be inviting the Liberal Democrat incumbent, Simon Hughes, and the Labour challenger, Neil Coyle, in my constituency, Bermondsey and Old Southwark, to indicate their support for these measures. I hope you might ask the same of your candidates.
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