U.K. Tories Switch Focus to Economy, Attack Labour's Spending

Alex Morales
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U.K. Tories Switch Focus to Economy, Attack Labour's Spending

(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party attacked the opposition Labour Party’s spending plans as they sought to switch the focus of their election campaign to one of their strong suits: the economy.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party plans to spend 1.2 trillion pounds ($1.5 trillion) over five years, a level that would plunge the U.K. into an economic crisis, Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid said on Sunday. He released a 36-page document that put a cost to Labour’s policies, including nationalization of energy and water utilities, introducing a 4-day working week and setting up a National Investment Bank.

“These are eye-watering levels of spending,” Javid told the BBC on Sunday. The alleged total “is absolutely reckless and will leave this country with an economic crisis within months. Not years, within months.”

After a series of missteps last week, the Tories are trying to get their campaign for the Dec. 12 general election onto safer ground by attacking Labour’s credibility on the economy. Economic statistics to be released on Monday are expected to show the U.K. returned to growth in the third quarter, and surveys show voters trust the Tories more than Labour to handle the economy.

Brexit ‘Paralysis’

Javid is trying to pile the pressure on Labour to explain how it’ll pay for a string of expensive pledges made since the 2017 general election, even after the chancellor jettisoned his own fiscal rules last week, promising to splurge an extra 20 billion pounds a year on capital projects such as railways and roads. Labour’s finance spokesman, John McDonnell, came out swinging, dismissing the Tory analysis as a “fake news.”

The ruling party’s economic credentials came under the microscope late on Friday when the U.K.’s sovereign credit rating was placed on negative outlook by Moody’s Investors Service, which cited “paralysis” in Brexit-era policy-making. Javid told the BBC that a Conservative win next month would remove the uncertainty over Brexit.

On Monday, the government’s economic record will face further scrutiny as the Office for National Statistics releases its first estimate of third-quarter growth. Economists predict a return to growth after the economy shrank by 0.2% in the second quarter. If they’re wrong, the U.K. would be in recession for the first time in a decade.

A YouGov survey in the Sunday Times found that 53% of voters think Labour’s plans are unaffordable, and 57% thought a recession was likely in the next few years if Labour wins the election. For the Tories, the figures were 33% and 39%. A Deltapoll survey for the Mail on Sunday found that 48% of voters think the Tories are best on the economy, compared with 28% who said Labour is.

‘Bad Maths’

The Tory analysis said Labour would increase government spending by 30%, or an extra 650 million pounds a day. More than 50% of the cost estimates came from Labour’s own figures, Javid said, with the Tories calculating other expenditure in a “reasonable way.”

“This ludicrous piece of Tory fake news is an incompetent mishmash of debunked estimates and bad maths,” McDonnell said in a statement. “Labour will tax the rich to pay for things everyone needs and deserves, like decent housing, health care and support for our children.”

McDonnell said Labour would publish full costings of its manifesto. That’s something it did in 2017, and the Conservatives didn’t.

Pilot Program

He told the Independent on Sunday that a Labour government would test out the idea of a universal basic income in a pilot program, and suggested that expansion of Heathrow would be blocked.

Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng declined in a Sky News interview to provide an equivalent figure for Conservative spending plans. Javid declined to say what taxation policies his party would pursue, promising to outline them later in the campaign. “I believe in low taxes; I believe people should keep more of their own money,” he said.

Both main parties suffered negative headlines last week. One minister quit Boris Johnson’s cabinet and another made insensitive remarks about the victims of a high-rise fire, while Corbyn was deemed “not fit to run the country” by former Labour lawmaker Ian Austin and branded an anti-semite by the Jewish Chronicle newspaper.

Tory Lead

Over the weekend, at least three polls gave the Tories a double-digit lead over Labour, while a fourth put the lead at 8 percentage points. That’s unlikely to trouble Corbyn, who at the outset of the 2017 campaign also lagged the Tories by a double-digit margin before recovering to deprive them of their majority.

The Tories are being squeezed on one side by three smaller pro-European parties that have formed an electoral pact to maximize their chances in 60 seats: the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and Plaid Cymru of Wales. On the other side of the European debate, Johnson faces losing votes to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which will launch its campaign on Monday.

Johnson has rebuffed overtures to make a pact with Farage, who had said the premier should abandon his Brexit deal. On Sunday, Farage gave Johnson another four days to reach agreement.

“This is the chance for a Leave alliance to deliver Brexit and finish off Labour for a generation,” Farage told the Sunday Express. “The clock is ticking. Nominations for candidates close this week. After that, the die will be cast.”

--With assistance from Jill Ward.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Morales in London at amorales2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tim Ross at tross54@bloomberg.net, Steve Geimann

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