Jokes wear thin at ill-tempered Labour event

By Estelle Shirbon
April 27, 2010

MandelsonLabour strategy chief Peter Mandelson berated the media at a press conference this morning for failing to focus on policy. Then he repeatedly side-stepped questions on the most important policy challenge of all: where are the tens of billions of pounds of spending cuts needed to halve the deficit going to come from?

Of course Labour are not alone in dodging that thorniest of questions. David Cameron keeps repeating that his Conservatives have gone “further than any opposition in history” in spelling out proposed spending cuts, starting with 6 billion pounds in unspecified “efficiency savings” this year. But his insistence cannot mask the fact that the Tories’ planned cuts, like Labour’s and indeed the Liberal Democrats’, add up to only a fraction of what is required.

Still, this was Labour’s press conference and it was a chance for them to be more specific. But they didn’t take it. Instead we got multiple promises to protect or even increase certain family-friendly benefits and services .

There was also a new and sinister campaign broadcast depicting heartless bureaucrats in suits and ties marching into happy families’ homes to tell them that the Tory government was taking away their child tax credit, child trust fund and guaranteed speedy appointment with a cancer specialist. So much for positive campaigning and taking Labour’s hopeful message out to the country. (Again, the Tories have their own scare tactics. Their latest campaign broadcast was not on their policies but on the perils of a hung parliament.)

Pressed on that pesky spending cuts question, Ed Balls, the schools secretary, did say that he’d already identified 300 million pounds’ worth of savings that could be found in his department and would ramp that up to half a billion eventually. As for his wife and cabinet colleague Yvette Cooper, the work and pensions secretary, she said a decision to delay some of the implementation of pensions reform would “save billions”. Wehey!

To put things in perspective: the deficit is expected to come in at around 163 billion pounds for the 12 months to end-March.

So, detailed and convincing deficit-busting plans were not on offer at Labour HQ. Instead we got tetchy exchanges between Mandelson and the media, dubious witticisms from both sides and a bizarre digression into whether or not the children’s television character Peppa Pig was a Labour supporter. (This came up because a planned Peppa Pig appearance at a Labour campaign event had been cancelled. Mandelson made some pointed comments about how this was some sort of plot by BBC managers, but no one really knew where he was going with that.)

Here’s an example of the level of discourse.  Question from a journalist to Mandelson: you’ve described Nick Clegg as a show pony and Gordon Brown as a workhorse — aren’t you worried the pony has kicked the horse into the ditch? Answer: you’re putting the cart before the horses.

Brilliant, isn’t it. Just what we need with nine days to go to one of the most important and unpredictable general elections in recent memory.

A Spanish journalist wanted to know why Tony Blair hadn’t made more campaign appearances. He’d been stuck abroad by the volcanic ash crisis, Mandelson said, but was now “winging his way back”. So would he appear more in coming days? “You won’t be disappointed,” Mandelson said mysteriously. Well, think what you like about the former prime minister, but the Labour campaign team could definitely do with some of Blair’s charm, based on this morning’s performance.

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