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‘Stark choice’ facing next government on public spending, says IFS

Labour and the Conservatives have been accused of a ‘conspiracy of silence’ in their General Election manifestos.

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The next government faces a “stark choice” between making tax rises beyond their manifesto pledges, spending cuts or increased borrowing, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

IFS director Paul Johnson said Labour and the Conservatives have maintained a “conspiracy of silence” on their spending plans and people will be voting in a “knowledge vacuum” at the General Election on July 4.

He also said Reform UK and the Green Party have helped to “poison the political debate” by suggesting their “radical reforms can realistically make a positive difference” when in fact their proposals are “wholly unattainable”.

Speaking at a manifesto analysis briefing in Westminster, Mr Johnson said taxes are at the “highest level ever” in the UK yet public services are struggling.

Mr Johnson said: “Despite the high tax levels, spending on many public services will, on current plans, likely need to be cut over the next five years unless taxes are raised further or government debt raises ever upwards.”

On how such a situation has emerged, Mr Johnson said: “The answer is in large part a £50 billion increase in debt interest spending relative to forecasts, and a pretty big growth in the welfare budget over the last few years.

“We’ve also got rising health spending, a defence budget which for the first time in decades is going to grow not shrink, and the reality of demographic change and the need to transition to net zero.

“Add in low growth and the after-effects of the pandemic and the energy price crisis and you’ve got a pretty toxic mix for the public finances.

“The two manifestos of the main parties essentially ignore these big challenges, these big facts mean that huge decisions over the size and shape of the state will need to be taken, that those decisions will, in all likelihood, mean higher taxes or worse public services.”

Mr Johnson said both Labour and the Conservatives are committed to ensuring that debt is falling in five years time, adding it “really constrains” them.

He said: “Taking it seriously, and as far as one can tell both manifestos do take it seriously, will mean the painful choices we’re outlining, none of that are faced up to.

“Current plans in the budget are for big cuts in investment spending – £18 billion a year or so by 2030.”

Mr Johnson went on: “We’ve called this a conspiracy of silence and that has been essentially maintained.

A graph tracking opinion polls
(PA Graphics)

“Regardless of who takes office following the General Election, they will – they might get lucky, but unless they get lucky – soon face a stark choice: raise taxes by more than they have told us in their manifesto or implement cuts to some areas of spending or break their fiscal rules and allow debt to rise for longer.

“That is the trilemma. What will they choose? I don’t know, the manifestos do not give us a clue.”

Mr Johnson said proposals by Labour and the Tories not to increase specific taxes or tax rates – known as tax locks – are a “mistake”.

He said: “They will constrain policy if a future government does decide it wants to raise more money to fund public services. They will also put constraints on tax reform.”

Mr Johnson said promises by Labour and the Conservatives to deliver improvements to the NHS are “essentially unfunded commitments”, adding: “You can’t pledge to end all waits of more than 18 weeks and allocate no money to that pledge, and then claim to have a fully costed manifesto.”

Turning to other parties, Mr Johnson said Reform UK and the Greens offer “much bigger number, very exciting radical policies”.

He said: “Of course they’re not going to be implemented because they’re not going to form the government.

Rishi Sunak speaks at a podium at the launch the Scottish Conservative manifesto
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said ‘we have a fully costed manifesto which can deliver tax cuts for people at every stage in their lives’ (Jane Barlow/PA)

“But I would suggest the way they suggest that their radical reforms can realistically make a positive difference, when in fact what they propose is wholly unattainable, does help to poison the political debate.

“It makes the other parties look feeble when you say ‘we could do all this stuff’. They can’t.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, asked about the IFS analysis, told reporters: “No, I don’t agree with that. We have a fully costed manifesto which can deliver tax cuts for people at every stage in their lives and that is largely funded by making sure that we can find some savings in the growth of the welfare budget, because it’s been growing at unsustainable levels since the pandemic.

“We’ve set out a very clear plan to reform that, to support people into work, and in fact, the IFS acknowledge that last time around they said that that wasn’t possible, that it was actually delivered, and that’s something that the IFS themselves have said.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, asked whether Mr Johnson was “wrong” with the IFS’s analyses in recent weeks, told broadcasters: “I don’t accept the forecasts that say we can’t do better than this. The economy has flatlined for 14 years. That is exactly what we are wanting to change, that’s why we’ve set out our plans for growth in our manifesto.”

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