Spending Review: Day of reckoning

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So after five months of waiting, the Spending Review is upon us - and the reckoning is about to begin.

This government has prepared the way extremely carefully for this event, knowing that it will shape the political debate for the coming years and is likely to seal its fate one way or another.

That is why ministers have been relentless in making two key arguments since taking power.

Image caption,
Government departments face big spending cuts over four years

First they have had to convince the public that the deficit is unsustainable and has to be cut.

They have bombarded us with massive scary numbers and whispered not so quietly about Greek-style riots if the international markets were to lose confidence in the British economy and government.

Second, they have gone to enormous lengths to persuade everyone that the cuts will be fair - hitting everyone from the rich to the poor.

Indeed, Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, mindful perhaps of the left in his own party, used the word "fairness" 32 times in a 21-minute speech last week.

Squeeze begins

Many of the big numbers are already known - £83bn of public spending cuts overall up to 2015; £29bn of tax rises over the same period.

But those numbers are so big as to be a little unreal. The results of the review should start to bring into sharp outline exactly what these cuts will mean, for you, for me, for all of us.

It will take some days to strip out the detail of this spending review.

Many of the decisions about what cuts will result from the headline departmental figures may not yet have been made and few politicians would trumpet the actual number of police officers or prison places that are to go, even if they think it is the right thing to do.

Inevitably though, people will begin losing jobs, services will be withdrawn and the squeeze will begin to hurt.

Labour have already decided not to fight every cut, accepting perhaps that having spent months electing a new leader, it is simply too late to try to kick against the idea of tackling the deficit in general, even if they had wanted to.

So they will pick their targets, and keep pointing out that they would not have done it this way.

Contradictions and apparent unfairness will also be key to Labour's strategy - such as the debate over withdrawing child benefit from homes with a single earner paying higher tax but leaving it with a double-income couple earning more than £80,000 collectively.

They will also be looking for any signs in the data which point towards a slowing or even reversal of the economy, ready to accuse ministers of depressing the very engine of recovery - economic growth.

For the Lib Dems, the spending round is also crucial.

Of course you would not choose this moment to go into government for the first time in 65 years but Nick Clegg has told his party that he is more and more convinced that the plan is the right thing to do.

The worry for Mr Clegg's supporters is that if the public turns against the coalition government over the cuts, then they could be heavily punished at the polls and conversely, if ministers manage to carry the voters with them, David Cameron could take all the glory and wipe out the Lib Dems anyway.

Time for us all to hold on to our hats.