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As massive cuts loom, the three main parties fail to address economic challenges ahead

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 26 April 2010

With Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats positioning themselves ahead of a possible hung parliament, Channel 4 News asks why politicians are failing to spell out the scale of the cuts that will have to be made after the election. Gary Gibbon and Cathy Newman report.

Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Nick Clegg

Whatever the outcome of the election, one thing is for certain: Britain will have a huge budget deficit and the next government will have to tackle it.
Whitehall is preparing for it, but we are hearing very little about it on the campaign trail.

Instead, there is more talk of spending than cutting, of saving rather than wholesale slashing of budgets.

Meanwhile, latest polling figures suggest that the Liberal Democrats are still seeing a boost in popularity while they remain almost neck and neck with the Conservatives.

A ComRes poll published this evening for ITV News/The Independent put the Liberal Democrats on an almost even footing with the Tories while Labour trail in third place. The poll gave the Conservatives 32 per cent, Lib Dems 31 per cent and Labour 28 per cent.

With margins narrowing between the main parties the polling forecast would still see Labour gain the most seats - although the party would be 58 seats short of a majority government. Labour would win 268 seats, the Conservatives 238 and the Liberal Democrats 112, according to the ComRes survery of 1,003 adults.

Out of those polled 72 per cent said they would prefer a majority government while 20 per cent said they would prefer a hung parliament.

The economic challenge ahead
Vote for us and protect the NHS, says Labour. We will raise the pay of frontline troops, say the Lib Dems. Meanwhle, the Conservatives are promising a range of tax breaks.

Why is no-one is prepared to talk about the sheer scale of the economic challenge facing whichever party takes charge after the election, and how the parties are planning to make the sweeping cuts in public spending which they will need to tackle the gaping hole in Britain's finances?

Neither David Cameron, Gordon Brown, nor Nick Clegg has identified more than £10bn in cuts. But that is way short of the £40bn in cuts they all say we need to make in the next three years.

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Across Whitehall, meanwhile, departments have been preparing files of projected cuts in public spending. Each file is tailored to each political party, trying to make sure it doesn't contradict their manifesto commitments.

But it is thought that in several of these files the civil servants have thought it necessary to include options that do go against the grain of what the party leaders have been campaigning on - because they are not convinced the total number of cuts can be achieved unless the politicians eat their words.

'This is not going to be painless'
Sir Richard Mottram, Work & Pensions permanent secretary 2002-5, told Channel 4 News that it was not true that things people cared about would not be hit by cutbacks after the election.

He noted that the chief executive of the National Health Service was looking at cuts, on an efficiency ticket, of £20bn. "What do people imagine," he asked, "is going to be the result of this?"

"You couldn't reorganise on that scale without fundamentally looking at everything the National Health Service does. This is not going to be painless."

The Institute of Personnel and Development's John Philpott said the risk to public sector jobs over the next five years was "in the order of half a million".

Recalling the forthcoming 90th anniversary of the 1926 general strike, He said: "It wouldn't surprise me if the kind of fiscal austerity we see in the next few years will generate something of the same kind before that 90th anniversary is met." And he suggested there could be "serious problems on the streets in the years to come".

A new political landscape
Back on the hustings, the Conservatives today accused Nick Clegg of trying to "hold the country to ransom" as they unveiled a mock election broadcast from the "Hung Parliament party" warning it would lead to financial catastrophe.

Shadow chancellor George Osborne announced that "a vote for the Hung Parliament party is a vote for politics behind closed doors, indecision and weak government, a paralysed economy and yet another election".

It is suddenly a whole new political landscape, one where the polls are so close that the talk is all about hung parliaments.

Anticipating an upsurge in Liberal Democrat support in Labour constituencies, the Tories are now extending their battleground to target Labour-held seats such as Southampton.

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Mr Clegg himself made it clear that he would be prepared to shore up a Labour coalition - but not Gordon Brown - if the party came third in the popular vote. He again criticised a political system that could see the Labour party get the lowest number of votes of the three main parties and yet carry on as prime minister.

Gordon Brown, like David Cameron, was in Southampton today. Labour thinks the Tories' shift in tactics is born of a desperate realisation that Nick Clegg's unexpected popularity will deprive them of the Lib Dem seats they were counting on.

To gain an overall majority, the Conservatives need to gain 101 seats from Labour, 13 from the Lib Dems and two from the nationalist parties. But they may not snatch anything from the Liberal Democrats - in fact, polls suggest Lib Dems could gain eight seats from the Tories and a further 21 from Labour.

John Curtice of Strathclyde University told Channel 4 News the new Conservative tactic was "an indication that the Conservatives have decided that perhaps Labour are the softer target".

But he warned that polls were suggesting the swing to the Conservatives would not be enough to security an overall majority.

Talking tactics: studio discussion
Jon Snow was joined in the studio by Varun Chandra, from the Labour-leaning political blog Left Foot Forward. Olly Grender, former communications adviser to Paddy Ashdown, and Tim Montgomerie, founder and director of the political blog conservativehome.

Questioned about the leaders’ failure to properly address the scale of the cuts the country has to make in the coming years, Tim Montgomerie claimed David Cameron had said more about the cuts that are necessary than any other opposition leader. But he said he did not think the Tories yet had the mandate for the kind of cuts that will be necessary.

Olly Grender conceded that there was a huge gap between the amount that actually had to be cut and the figures the leaders were talking about. She said she was looking forward to Thursday’s debate on the economy because this was a critical issue. And she suggested that the politicians and the media were both responsible for failing to present the issue clearly.

The Labour-supporting Varun Chandra told Jon Snow it was fear-mongering hyperbole to say "the country's bankrupt".

Discussing tomorrow’s Guardian/ICM poll (showing Labour on 29 per cent, the Conservatives on 33 per cent, and the Lib Dems on 30 per cent), Ollie Grender said she did not find the prospect of a hung parliament "scary" – it was a question of proper preparation. She predicted that over the next week politicians will emerge who decide to be "sensible, practical" about it.

The Tory-leaning Tim Montgomerie noted that Germany, sometimes cited as a model for coalition governments, had just taken eight weeks "to agree very modest tax and spending reforms". He predicted a hung parliament in the UK could result in a "system of paralysis" which could have a knock-on effect on the financial markets.

Varun Chandra countered that markets were already comfortable with the idea of a hung parliament.

Liberal commentator Olly Grender said it was old fashioned to suggest that the best decision-making came as the result of a majority government. She cited the economic problems currently experienced by Greece - one of only four countries in Europe with a majority administration.

Asked by Jon Snow whether they thought the situation could change in the 10 days before the 6 May polll, Varun Chandra said "10 days is a long time in politics – of course it can change!" Olly Grender thought people wanted "to throw all the cards up in the air and see what happens".

Tim Montgomerie concluded he was hoping a spectacular performance from David Cameron in the final leaders debate on BBC this Thursday.

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