By Alex Smith
From 7pm, I’ll be running a live blog of Channel 4′s Ask the Chancellors debate, in which Alistair Darling, George Osborne and Vince Cable will go head-to-head on the economy, with questions from Krishnan Guru-Murthy.
The debate itself starts at 8pm, and I’ll be tweeting to highlight the key phrases, bringing together comment from elsewhere and posting video as it becomes available.
Well, that was a whirlwind, and although it will have been interesting for political obsessives – most of whom will have learned little new – I doubt it will have any effect on the polls or even change more than a very small handful of votes.Â But as a pre-season for the leaders’ debates, and an introduction to the economy election, it was a valuable discussion.
But no one really landed any killer blows. Vince Cable, stood in the middle of the three “chancellors” controlled the discussion. Alan Giles in the commentsÂ wonders whether the Lib Dems can move in the polls as a result of Cable’s adroit performance. Darling was sound and got his messages across well, putting the case for targeted government intervention. His favourability ratings will still be high after another “workmanlike” performance. Osborne, with low expectations, performed reasonably well. But bigger-hitter William Hague is already hitting the spin circus at the venue.
In terms of what was said, all three refused to rule out VAT rises in the future – which probably means they’re inevitable; all three said future cuts would be as severe as under Thatcher.There was no clear cut winner, except perhaps Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who chaired the discussion well. All in all, a no score draw.
Andrew Sparrow has split his assessment into categories, a good way of keeping track. His results are:
Sounding Competent Darling: 30 Osborne: 25 Cable: 34
Promoting Fairness Darling: 14Â Osborne: 12 Cable: 14
Securing the recovery Darling: 13 Osborne: 11 Cable: 15
Dealing with the debt Darling: 12 Osborne: 12 Cable: 17
Gaby Hinsliff says “all played to type (Darling: family lawyer reading will, Cable: wise old hermit; Osborne: suit in a hurry) & no surprises. Which means…..good nite for Cable (extra airtime), Darling unchanged, Osborne benefits by not having screwed up as rather cockily predicted by some.”
Tweetminster, measuring sentiment on Twitter: Cable +5, Darling +1, Osborne 0
Here are each of the opening statements, starting with Alistair Darling:
DARLING: “Over the last two or three years, we’ve made the right judgement calls in stabilising the economy and the banking system. The challenge now is to work with private sector companies to create jobs…and a fair and stronger country. That’s what we’re offering. We’ve made the right calls in the past, we’ll do so again.”
CABLE:Â “We’ve got to make the economy less dependent on financial sector.” Attacks Tories on “rich backers with their noses in the troughs” — and gets applause for that line.
OSBORNE: “Our economy faces incredible problems, make a judgement on how the Labour government performs. You have a choice.”
20:50 Osborne says “I think government can help” young people to get into work. I thought government was the problem for the Tories? Darling says “government’s got to play a role; we can’t leave it to chance” — clear hit on the Tories.
** In a Channel 4 poll, Darling takes the lead on 34%, Cable/Osborne both on 33%. **
20:45 Andrew Sparrow says Cable is still ahead, with Darling behind. No mention of Osborne, and no knock out blow yet, he says.
20:45 Osborne says the bankers on Â£60 million “don’t understand what the rest of the country is going through”. Darling says we need the reforms in place to claw back bailout funds.
Darling: I proposed the tax on bankers’ bonuses, which has brought in Â£2bn, which I have put towards help for small businesses.
20:40 Cable attacks Osborne on the “Tory tax priority” of inheritance tax. Osborne grimaces in response. LabourList columnist Anthony Painter, who is in the audience, tweets: “First full-on right hook of the night from Cable….and Osborne is flailing. #AskTheChancellors.”
20:35 Cable says it’s the job of the chancellor to narrow the gap between rich and poor, and make a fairer society. Darling says he agrees, and that “we want to live in a country and a society that is fair; fairness is central to everything we stand for.”
20:30Â The next audience question is about “brain drain”. Osborne says he can’t avoid tax rises on “the few”. Darling’s opportunity to attack on inheritance tax!
20:30 Cable, Darling and Osborne all refuse to rule out tax rises, on VAT in particular, in the future.
20:30 Darling gets a good laugh and applause line after Osborne asks whether he lifted the stamp duty holiday from the Tories. Darling says “there’s nothing like cross-party cooperation, George Â — we’re all in favour of that”.
20:30 Osborne is talking about “Alistair’s party thinking about a 10%” levy on death. Cable comes up with the classic groups interview technique to differentiate himself: “where can we all agree on the crisis?” Osborne returns to the “death tax”, which is of course, not part of Labour’s plan. Finally, Darling is given the opportunity to respond. Darling sidesteps onto the international economy, and how the twenty biggest economies agree with the government, and only the Tories stand alone. Darling denies that the death tax is still an option, but fumbles his answer somewhat, and looks a little nervous and stuttery as he does so.
20:20 Question from the audience on which of the chancellors will cut public sector pensions. Darling says new teachers will get lower benefits than they might’ve had in the past, but it will be done in a way that is fair. Osborne says the Tories want a cap on “big pensions” in the public sector. Osborne is certainly performing better than I’d expected.
20:20 Andrew Sparrow at the Guardian says, so far, Vince Cable is winning. I wouldn’t disagree with that.
20:20 Responding to which services might be ringfenced, Darling says Labour will keep the cancer guarantee (right to see a specialist within a week). Cable says not one area can be completely “cast iron” guaranteed ringfencing. Questions are coming quick and fast now — but answers are short and rushed by all the politicians on show.
All three agree that cuts will have to be deeper than Thatcher’s.
20:10Â Darling says to cut too far or too fast would risk a double dip recession. He says he will protect frontline services, but that the next spending review will be the toughest “in perhaps twenty years”. Osborne is the first to draw really stark dividing lines on Tory plans for cutting quangos and public sector pay. Cable is sounding credible on cuts “very specific cuts we would like” on government bureaucracy. Osborne has been asked by Guru-Murthy why the government should cut right away: “in the end it comes down to common sense.” Darling says it’s not true that that’s the case. Osborne interrupts him — first sign of bad blood?
Darling has hit back immediately, saying Osborne’s plans are irresponsible — he looks genuinely angry and upset. Now Cable has started attacking Osborne, too, calling plans “utterly incredible”. Vince Cable is doing much of Darling’s attack work for him. Darling says Osborne hasn’t got “a single penny in the bank” to pay for the Tory national insurance plans.
When challenged by Cable on where spending cuts will come from, Darling says they were announced in the budget last week: reform public service pensions, keeping public sector pay low.
20:10Â Now that the audience questions are coming out, the “chancellors” are already showing a little more looseness. Darling talks about his judgement on the recession, but also on his sense of fairness. Osborne talks about the need to be part of a team, and rooted in values.
20:00 And we’re off! An uninspiring opening statement from Osborne which outlines the Tory debt reduction agenda. Cable is a little better, but neither are particularly natural doing this. I think there’ll be quite a lot of trial and error tonight. Darling’s statement is also pre-prepared, and he stutters once or twice, but delivers Labour’s key messages of not risking the recovery by cutting spending too early.
Round 1: Darling 3/5 Cable 3/5 Osborne 2.5/5
20:00 The Labour Party hasÂ bought some Google adwords on a variety of different terms related to the debate tonight, which direct people to Alistair Darlingâ€™s response on George Osborneâ€™s NICs announcement today:
19:50Â And, overall, 55% of respondents prefer reducing public spending over raising taxes (30%) to reduce the deficit. The question as to which taxes would be raised and on whom at what levels – or which spending would be cut and how quickly – didn’t appear to be asked.
19:45 A poll for Channel 4 News ahead of the debate shows 26% of respondents prefer Vince Cable as Chancellor. 17% think Darling would be best chancellor, and only 12% think George Osborne. Presumably that still leaves 45% of people who are undecided or don’t know – those will be the voters the “chancellors” will try to convince tonight.
19:40pm I’ve just had an email telling me it’s Tony and Cherie Blair’s 30th wedding anniversary. Strange, but quite an achievement.
19:15pm Here’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy preparing a hitherto empty studio for the audience.