Cameron goes off the rails

The PM's patronising demand for families to clear their debts is bad economics and terrible politics

Leave aside the economics for now, David Cameron's call for households to clear their debts is terrible politics. In his speech at the Conservative conference today, he will say:

"The only way out of a debt crisis is to deal with your debts. That means households - all of us - paying off the credit card and store card bills."

At a time when voters are facing the biggest fall in living standards since the 1920s (owing to a combination of rising prices, falling wages, lower benefits and higher taxes), Cameron's demand is hideously patronising. It is a perfect example of what the novelist Joyce Carey once described as a "tumbril remark" - the sort of statement seemingly designed to ignite class war. Marie Antoinette's infamous (and likely apocryphal) riposte to the news that the poor were suffering due to bread shortages ("let them eat cake") is the most celebrated historical example.

Now, Cameron, a man who has had never had a money worry in his life, insists that the poor must repay their debts, as if, up to this point, they had merely chosen not to do so. I cannot recall a less sensitive or more thoughtless remark from a serving Prime Minister.

But worse, Cameron's comments confirm that he has no grasp of basic economics. If we are to avoid an economic death spiral, we need people to spend, not save. Keynes's paradox of thrift explains why. The more people save, the more they reduce aggregate demand, thus further reducing (and eventually destroying) economic growth. They will be individually wise but collectively foolish. If no one spends (because they're paying off their debts) then businesses can't grow and unemployment willl soar. The paradox is that if everyone saves then savings eventually become worthless.

The final and greatest irony is that Cameron is leading a government whose own policies are increasing household debt. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that household debt will rise from £1,560bn in 2010 to £2,126bn in 2015 (or from an average of £58,000 to an average of £77,309. NB: the figures include mortgages), largely due to higher inflation (encouraged by Osborne's VAT rise) but also due to "the reductions in social security payments announced in the October Spending Review, which act to reduce household disposable income". In other words, George Osborne's decision to take an axe to the welfare state is helping to fuel the household debt bubble.

No one denies that household debt is too high. Indeed, UK households are more indebted than those of any other major economy. But if Cameron wants to address this problem he should have said something about the fact that 11 million low-to-middle earners have seen no rise in their real income since 2003. People borrowed to maintain their living standards as wages stagnated. Cameron's blunt demand for households to repay their debts suggests a man who not only can't solve the problem but doesn't even understand it. Today, we have seen the clearest indication yet that he is unfit to govern this country.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.