Oborne worries that about the mixed messages, but is confident that plans are being drawn up for the spending axe to fall more sharply
On the one hand Shadow Chancellor George Osborne has sent out the solid 'conservative' message to the City that he will enforce huge public spending cuts. Simultaneously, however, Cameron and other members of the Shadow Cabinet are keen to put out a more 'progressive' message ...
The truth is that Osborne will be forced to implement swingeing cuts after the election. Indeed, I can reveal he has ordered the Treasury's permanent secretary, Nick Macpherson, to find savings of nearly 30 per cent in departmental budgets which would come into effect immediately if the Tories gain power.
Oborne welcomes this approach but wants the Tories to come clean ahead of the election.
As usual, the paragon of honesty and virtue in these matters is Margaret Thatcher. But Oborne seems to me to require a rather dramatic rewriting of history to do so.
In 1979, Margaret Thatcher was honest about what she would do, if elected, to sort out the economic shambles bequeathed her by Jim Callaghan. She got her reward for honesty when in her administration's first Budget, Chancellor Geoffrey Howe raised VAT to 15 per cent. The next day's newspapers led with the headline: 'You got what you voted for.'
Hmmm. This is what might be called a 'highly revisionist' account. The 1979 budget's rise in VAT is not usually considered a primary example of frankness and honesty in election campaigning.
Quite the opposite. As the FT's Alex Barker blogged recently on this 'legendary Geoffrey Howe dodge' recommending Nick Timmins' account of 'How the Tories kept secret of 15% tax hike sets out how there had been discussions of an increase from 8 per cent to 15 or 17.5 per cent in February 1978. 11 months before the election, they had adopted a secret policy to impose a 15 per cent rise immediately after the election.
Far from welcoming frank Tory plans to raise VAT and preparing their readers for what was to come, as Oborne implies, the Daily Mail attacked Labour claims of a secret Tory plan to double VAT as one of “Labour’s dirty dozen lies”.
Geoffrey Howe's memoirs rejected the idea that it was misleading to state that “we have absolutely no intention of doubling VAT” during the campaign:
"We had no difficulty denying it. For there was no prospect, on even the most gloomy of expectations, of our having to go beyond a rate of 15 per cent. Some critics afterwards thought it pedantically misleading to rest our case on the fact that twice 8 per cent (the then basic rate) was 16 and not 15 per cent ..."
If this is the model of honest campaigning to be emulated, then don't be surprised if Osborne insists that the report of 30% cuts are a speculative exaggeration - and then goes for 29.5% instead.