Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Why this election now looks like a race it is better to lose

The parish pump was always a robust item in these parts. So the focus through the election campaign has been local.

Will Minister Gildernew survive in Fermanagh-South Tyrone? Will Empey take back South Antrim from the DUP? How much will family scandal hit Robinson in East Belfast?

Yet seldom has the ebb and flow nationally mattered more to every citizen in this outpost.

Cameron - expected here today - has been under fire for his intention to shrink the public sector in Northern Ireland. It was not the best campaigning remark - however sound in theory.

Taxpayer pounds provide 71% of GDP here: too much. But they provide 69% in Wales and 64% on Tyneside and Teesside.

The implication is clear: this spot takes its medicine with the rest, pact with an incoming Tory Government or no.

The tax experts in the Institute of Fiscal Studies have warned us that it will be bitter. But they must take the prize for one of the more inane pronouncements of the campaign, when they criticised the parties for failing to spell out in detail how they propose to tackle the deficit, plus the core problem, the mounting debt.

Of course, the parties have not! Can the institute be serious? These are politicians running for office.

Gordon Brown put off his normal annual spending review until after the election, precisely to keep the size of the black hole under wraps.

Cameron and Clegg, hands apart, palms upwards, in the manner of men in the grip of superior forces, deplored Brown's withholding the figures. ("In the circs, you understand, we have no option but to postpone . . .")

The Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, warned in February that the recovery would be put at risk if the parties did not publish plans to cut the deficit.

But last week a visiting US economist leaked that King had advised him that any party applying the measures necessary to do this would be out of office for a generation. Come Thursday, though, the kidding has to stop.

The medicine from a likely Tory Government will start at the top. The Northern Ireland annual grant from the Treasury is now worth some £7 bn.

The greater part of this - and of the Stormont budget - goes on the NHS. Health cuts already earmarked - amid ministerial protests - amount to more then £100m during the coming year.

But total cuts in the Stormont budget could amount to almost £400m.

The Tories already have a beady eye on the national picture. The head of the Civil Aviation Authority for example, is a lady, one Dame Deirdre Hutton (61), a divorced mother-of-two.

When she was appointed - it's her 10th quango - she admitted that she knew "nothing about aeroplanes". But she earns £130,000 for a two-day week.

Nearer home, 'Government Offices' fill 24 packed pages in the Belfast phonebook alone. Then there is sick leave.

The Reform think-tank says that, if public sector workers nationally took the same amount of sick leave as those in the private sector, it would save 3% of the wages' bill. That is £6bn-a-year.

If they worked the same number of hours per week, that would save another 10%. That is another £20bn. Unpopular talk? Undoubtedly. But you will hear it - soon after Thursday.

Reform has been gauging possibilities in the NHS, the universities, police and fire services and government departments.

It claims to have agreed potential savings of 20% - equal to billions of pounds - with no loss in quality of service. Ministers, though, may baulk.

Jobs would surely be lost in a process on this scale. Confrontation with the unions would ensue, and savings would be compromised by the forcing of redundant workers onto benefits.

Such is the dilemma awaiting Thursday's victor.

I still think Cameron will be Prime Minister.

But I cannot avoid the conviction that this election looks more and more like one to lose.

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