Mrs Duffy got it right. The overriding challenge facing the next government is to make an early and decisive start on reducing, and eventually eliminating, this country’s unprecedented and unsustainable fiscal deficit.
Any failure to do so would cause serious alarm in the financial markets which provide the funds to finance the deficit, and make the task even harder and more costly than it already is. And the markets are in a distinctly edgy state as it is over the problems of the high deficit members of the eurozone.
In advance of the election campaign, all the parties claimed to recognise this, with the Conservatives going furthest in promising a budget within 50 days, which would make a start on cutting back public spending this year.
During the campaign itself, however, a curious silence descended on the issue, with the parties evidently deciding that unpalatable news (even though it was not really news at all) would lose votes. That may well have been a major error by David Cameron, since it is incontestable that it is the gross mismanagement of the public finances by Gordon Brown that has caused the massive scale of the deficit, and Mr Cameron’s decision to change the subject enabled Mr Brown to present himself as a safe pair of economic hands.
Be that as it may, there is no ducking the issue now, and it has to be tackled, despite the debilitating consequences and complexities of a hung parliament.
Precisely how it is done is very much a secondary issue: important, of course, but there is more than one way of skinning a cat. Clearly, the main emphasis should be on cutting back government spending, which over the past decade has risen more in the UK than in any other industrialised nation. Asked how they would do this before the election campaign, the political leaders responded by saying what they would not cut, thus making the task even harder.
This will have to be looked at again. It is absurd, for example, that all the parties have promised to increase overseas aid, despite studies which demonstrate that aid usually does more harm than good.
But in the short term, tax increases may have to play a part, too. Certainly, this is no time for any net reductions in taxation. My own credentials as a committed tax cutter are, I think, reasonably well-established; and indeed I would like to see the next government make lower tax rates a firm long-term objective. But that has to wait until fiscal consolidation has been secured.
At the time of writing, there is the prospect of some kind of Conservative-Liberal pact. Fine, if the pact is about the much-needed emergency budget and how the deficit is going to be reduced. Not fine if it is about anything else.
One area of agreement, we are told, is forging ahead with the achievement of a low-carbon economy. A low-carbon economy means a high energy-cost economy. I recognise that a case can be made for this (although I have explained elsewhere why I do not accept it) as part of a global agreement. But as the Copenhagen climate conference demonstrated, no such agreement is on the cards. For the UK to damage its economy unilaterally in this way would be foolish at any time, and positively irresponsible in the current economic predicament.
It is bizarre, too, when all the parties appear to believe that the UK economy has depended too much on the financial services sector, and that it would be desirable if manufacturing played a larger part, to embrace a policy that would be particularly harmful to Britain’s manufacturing sector.