Damning IFS judgement shows how much all parties have to hide

The Tories will launch devastating cuts to public services but they are unprepared to tell the public what they are. Labour is incredibly vague about how much it will borrow. The Liberal Democrats are doing Mickey Mouse mathematics with their deficit reduction plans. And the SNP are as committed to austerity as any of the other parties, despite their rhetoric.

That's the unappealing truth of this election. The Institute of Fiscal Studies, which is becoming a supreme court of final judgement in British politics, lays it out in black and white in its report on the four parties' spending plans today. It has been elevated to this role because the parties themselves are so untrustworthy and journalists have become largely redundant. During the election, print journalists have mostly become party political press officers for whichever side their newspaper supports, while broadcast journalists are so terrified of appearing anything other than impartial that they refrain from the sort of useful analysis which might inform their viewers as to what's actually going on.

Any media outlet not straitjacketed by party support or made impotent by extremist neutrality is frozen out of proceedings. They are handpicked to be able to watch Boris Johnson and David Cameron talk to schoolchildren. They are penned-in, away from leaders, so they cannot ask them questions. The morning press conferences which structured previous elections are gone. Interviews are almost all turned down. Party leaders won't even talk to the public, let alone the press.

This near-hysterical level of control is interpreted as a desire to avoid a Gillian Duffy-style gaffe. But there's more to it than that. This is an election which is fundamentally about lack of substance. Politicians don't want to be asked questions because they wish for the image of government and its function to be as distant as possible. We are seeing a campaign of misinformation: the Tory combination of tax handouts and magical deficit reduction, the Labour policy of criticising spending cuts and then pledging to do the same in the future, the Lib Dem pledge of sound economic management despite knowing they will follow whatever the economic policy is of the party they happen to end up in bed with, and the SNP lie of being anti-austerity when their plans are broadly in line with everyone else's.

These various efforts to mislead the public were mapped-out in detail by the IMF today.

The Conservative plans are predicated on £5 billion of largely unspecified anti-avoidance measures, £10 billion unspecified cuts to benefits and £30 billion cuts to unprotected government departments, which were not mentioned in their manifesto. Areas like defence, transport, law and order and social care are facing cuts of just under 18% next parliament, on top of the 18% they lost last parliament. So in ten years, many of Britain's most vital government departments will have lost nearly 40% of their funding. It is an extraordinary sweeping-back of the British state.

The IFS goes on:

"Since the Conservatives' plans imply the greatest reduction in borrowing, the Conservatives have the greatest job to do in terms of setting out how they would achieve this. Despite this, their detailed tax policies are a net giveaway of 0.1% of national income, their detailed social security measures would only provide a tenth of the cuts that they have said they want to deliver, and their commitments on aid, the NHS and schools would (relative to a real freeze) increase spending on these areas by 0.3% of national income. So the Conservatives need to spell out substantially more detail of how they will deliver the overall fiscal targets they have set themselves."

Labour at least can be given credit for the fact that those measures it has detailed will boost tax revenues. But they "have been much less clear about exactly what level of deficit reduction they want to achieve and by when". This is problematic given the image of high financial responsibility the party promoted during its manifesto launch. The party provided "disappointingly little information on what they would borrow". Surprise surprise.

The Lib Dems are aiming for the mid-point of the Labour and Tory plans, presumably for political rather than economic reasons. But regardless of their equidistance strategy, they share the failings of the other two.

"They have failed to spell out details of how they would achieve much of their tightening, relying heavily on unspecified measures to reduce tax avoidance and evasion (£7 billion) as well as some unspecified social security cuts (£2 billion). They are also relying on cuts to departmental spending (£12 billion), although (unlike the Conservatives) these were mentioned in their manifesto. Their plans require real cuts to departmental spending of 3.4% between 2014–15 and 2017–18 (or 9.0% outside of the NHS, education and aid). This is predicated on their aspiration to raise 0.3% of national income (£7 billion) from highly uncertain measures to reduce tax avoidance and evasion by 2017–18."

The SNP have sold themselves as the anti-austerity party and Nicola Sturgeon has won rave reviews for her principled and dignified attacks on Ed Miliband's support for austerity during the TV debates. So it is strange to discover that they would have a longer period of austerity than under the other three parties. Any tax rises would be negated by their tax giveaways. As the IFS concludes: "Their stated plans do not necessarily match their anti-austerity rhetoric." But to be fair – and to the SNP's credit – it was "the one major party not to have used largely made up assumptions… on tax avoidance to try to make their sums add up".

The report's authors conclude:

"Unfortunately, the electorate is at best armed with only an incomplete picture of what they can expect from any of these four parties."

Afterwards the parties dove in and handpicked whichever bits of information were useful to them. Labour said it proved the Tories would deliver the most extreme cuts. Tories said it proved Labour was unclear about what it would borrow. And on and on. None of it is false, but all of it is deeply misleading given how comprehensive the condemnation from the IMF was today.

In the end, the report was probably most damaging for the Tories and SNP. Labour is not running on an economic competence platform, even though it flirted with it last week. The Tories are – so the accusations of throwing around magic money are doubly damaging. The Tories also suffer because the report discredits the idea that the SNP will drag Labour to the left. There's been plenty of lunacy over the last few weeks about a Miliband-Sturgeon Marxist alliance in Downing Street. The truth is, the only radical thing about the SNP is their rhetoric. There is actually a remarkable degree of correlation between the two parties' economic plans – and the extent to which they mislead the public about their principles.

But picking out an individual loser from the report is not useful. There is more than enough blame here for us to spread it around equally. The IFS shows why the parties don't like to answer questions: they are purposefully running this campaign in the most misleading way they can.