First up was the reliably charismatic (ha ha!) Alistair Darling. Followed by everybody's favourite cabinet minister, Hazel Blears. And then Geoff "I was in the front line of the Iraq war... at least at the despatch box" Hoon. All of them spouted statistics about extra public services which people will either ignore or won't believe, whilst attacking potential spending cuts by the Tories which sounded microscopic to me. (Figures being mentioned were mostly in the region of £100-£200 million, which is neither here nor there in a public spending sense.) It's come to a desperate pass when Margaret Beckett is the best thing about a PPB.
Poor old Margaret... overlooked for the party leadership in 1994, immortalised in the 1970s volume of Alan Clark's diaries as "sexy little miss-horse-face from Lincoln" (or some similar compliment/putdown). Doing the housing minister brief she must be reminded of the words of Ozzy Osborne from Decline of Western Civilization Part 2: The Metal Years:
You meet a lot of people on the way up: don't f*** with them 'cos you meet them on the way down as well!
Actually, that quote could apply equally to the New Labour project as a whole. I watched some of the Dispatches programme that followed the PPB, until the Taxpayers Alliance (actually the Taxcutters Alliance) got too much exposure and I had to switch over. It was basically attacking government waste - an easy target to be sure. Journalist Jane Moore, who fronted the programme, was right to point out that the NHS IT scheme is an expensive failure, that MoD procurement is a disastrous mess, and that the tax credits scheme was (at least initially) an administrative fiasco. I hope the programme then went on to talk about PFI, the biggest public sector financial scandal (and potentially the most long-lasting) of the lot. But I don't know 'cos I didn't make it that far in. Frank Field was given a lot of interview space, which is always unfortunate, along with Edward Leigh from the Public Accounts Committee - who despite being a right-wing Tory, is actually a lot less annoying than Field. But that's the way of these things.
This far into a period of government term it's possible to get a hell of a lot of dirt on any administration and make most of it stick. But by making bad mistakes on some public spending projects, and failing to curb obvious pork barrel waste in others (why on earth did the MoD need 75 plasma TVs, for example?) the incompetence of New Labour makes it much more likely that a Conservative government will strip away all the spending increases that have actually been useful - tax credits, the extra money for health and education (certainly there have been mistakes there, but overall both services are in a far better shape than in 1997), infrastructure funding - and get us back into the same underfunded mess we'd reached by the 1990s. And if that happened, it would basically be New Labour's fault. For sloppiness and incompetence.
But Labour sure as hell ain't gonna get out of the present poll slide with lame offerings like last night's. Maybe an accommodation has already been reached with the Tories: nice pensions and the chance to chair a review or two for the senior ministers, the opportunity to defect for the New Labour vanguard (John Hutton, anyone?) and the chance for Blairites to say 'I told you so' as Labour becomes a bankrupt husk in opposition. It certainly wouldn't surprise me.