Gordon Brown’s popularity is now so low that if he came out in favour of helping to save the red squirrel, there would be a bunch of people out there with air-rifles, buying tickets to the Isle of Wight. But opposition to the Brown/Darling Fiscal Responsibility Act has the additional virtue of being well-founded.
In the slightly boring but heroically astute Fiscal Rules, OK?, a colleague and I argued that the rules mean nothing, are time-inconsistent – and that the Tories’ proposed alternative, the Office for Budget Responsibility, far from ‘transforming government’, would in fact neuter Parliament and allow Conservatives to force fiscal hawkishness on future generations. Or just become yet another quango.
In fact, Fraser Nelson, a man untainted by post-1930 thinking on budget deficits, lets the cat out the bag. He calls it ‘a quango whose purpose would in effect be to instruct the government to spend less and to help the Chancellor make his arguments.’ And elsewhere he asks for it to be hardcoded with Laffer-style optimism – or ‘dynamic modelling’ as he and his fellow students at his econometric graduate school called it. So, in other words, the Office would be there to institutionalise the hard-Right way of thinking about fiscal deficits. Not a very good idea, not democratic, and in the end unenforcable.
But Brown’s latest idea is also rubbish.
The FT thinks so: “Labour cannot legislate its way to fiscal responsibility. As it stands, the target is arguably neither enforceable nor sufficient. It is simply a cost-free way to answer charges that Labour is spendthrift.”
John Redwood thinks so: “Just when you thought they couldn’t come up with any more absurd posturing we are promised a Budget balancing Act for the next Parliament. Perhaps bloggers would like to write in with what sanctions they think should apply to Ministers who fail to hit the targets!” You don’t want to hear the answers. JR himself is better than I had expected. His ditto-heads are worse*.
But otherwise it has met a lot of silence. No-one thinks that anything the government can pass now will have any impact. The Tories can repeal it when they introduce their OBR. The delegates in half-empty Brighton will either think it is boring, or if they understand it, will disagree because they are convinced that public spending cuts are wrong and economically disastrous, whenever they happen.
*e.g. ‘it had me crying with laughter and crying for our poor betrayed nation.’ I hope I never have to actually spend time with anyone who cries at either John Redwood jokes or at our poor betrayed nation.