Apocalypse now: Labour ramps up the fear

The only thing missing from Ed Balls' speech of spending cuts doom were the well-timed cracks of thunder and lightning. As the polls continue to drift Labour has found a new way to win the election – fear.

What the shadow chancellor wants voters to think is this: Under the Tories, the world will come to an end. Or, at least, public services as you know them will.

Balls' speech at the Royal Society of Arts goes beyond scaremongering into a new level of calamity-laden hyperbole. But it's based on an analysis of very simple numbers that everyone can understand. After £12 billion of planned welfare cuts, the Tories need to find £58 billion of spending cuts over the next four years if they're to achieve their goal of achieving a surplus and wiping out the deficit.

That is irrefutably "extreme", Balls says: "More extreme than in this parliament, the most extreme in post-war history and the most extreme internationally." And it means we are now less than halfway through austerity, to boot.

Where there are question-marks, and where Balls therefore strays into hypothetical doom-mongering, are on what the Conservatives could actually do to make the numbers add up. What Labour is doing is highlighting the invidious position the Tories are in. They can't just keep cutting to the same proportions because that would mean some departments would literally cease to exist.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Transport would be wiped out completely, Balls declared. "Cuts on this scale would mean closing our embassies around the world, closing down all job centres and back to work programmes and all but ending central government’s funding for local government," he said. It sounds like the end of government in a political disaster movie where there is only Ed Miliband, rather than Tom Cruise, who can save the day. It sounds, in short, terrible.

Actually, Balls concedes, "this is clearly impossible to countenance". It is just his rhetorical build-up to his point about how he thinks the Tories could actually square the spending-cuts circle – either by raising VAT or cutting the NHS. Yes! The NHS is "at risk", the shadow chancellor claims. Ringfenced in 2010, but decimated in 2015: that is the new danger Labour wants voters to focus on.

The Tories will respond by questioning the figures. They'll suggest there are only £30 billion of spending cuts needed and will use the word 'scaremongering' ad nauseam. Yet all general election struggles between Labour and the Conservatives are two separate conversations in which neither pays much attention to the other. Labour has found a way of highlighting the danger to the health service, the issue on which it holds supremacy in voters' minds over the Conservatives, and can ram their message home accordingly. In the north of England, where Labour must seek to take as many seats as possible from the Tories to offset their losses in Scotland, the narrative of an NHS disaster waiting to happen is bound to have plenty of traction.

Until the Conservatives publish their manifesto the Labour attack can broaden out to cover any number of disastrous scenarios. Today's speech raises the possibility of "the smallest army since Cromwell". It warns of "the smallest police force since comparable records began". It suggests a third of older people who receive social care losing their entitlement to it. And, above all, it suggests £10 billion of cuts to the NHS. Not all of these things will happen, but that isn't stopping Balls.

"The choice for the British people is now clear," the shadow chancellor concludes: "A tough, but balanced and fair plan to deliver rising living standards and get the deficit down with Labour; or an extreme and risky plan under the Tories for bigger spending cuts in the next four years than the last five years which would cause huge damage to our public services and put our NHS at risk."

Actually, the choice is not quite so clear as that. Labour needs more details about the Tories' plans before they can really lay into them. But they are not going to hang around waiting for manifesto commitments, especially not in this long pre-campaign period. Not when there is such a great opportunity to get voters really, really scared.