"I'll cut the deficit, not the NHS", declared the Conservatives' memorable poster of David Cameron at the last election. But today, as he prepares to deliver his Autumn Statement at 12:30pm, George Osborne stands accused of doing the reverse: cutting the NHS, not the deficit.
With exquisite timing, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Andrew Dilnot, has written to the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, challenging his claim that spending on the NHS has risen in real terms "in each of the last two years". In response to a complaint from the shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, Dilnot concludes that, contrary to recent Conservative statements, "expenditure on the NHS in real terms was lower in 2011-12 than it was in 2009-10". The most recent Treasury figures show that while real terms spending rose by 0.09 per cent between 2010-11 and 2011-12, it fell by 0.84 per cent between 2009-10 and 2010-11. In other words, Hunt is wrong to claim that the NHS has received real-terms increases "in each of the last two years".
In fairness, Dilnot rightly goes on to note that "given the small size of the changes and the uncertainties associated with them, it might also be fair to say that real terms expenditure had changed little over this period." But the point stands: the Tories promised real terms increases in NHS spending in each year of this Parliament (routinely attacking Labour and the Liberal Democrats for refusing to do the same) and they failed to deliver.
As for the deficit, Osborne will almost certainly be forced to announce that he'll miss his deficit target for this year (£119.9bn) by as much as £30bn. For the first time since the Chancellor entered No. 11, borrowing is set rise in annual terms, a significant blow to his narrative of "balancing the books". Worse, confronted by OBR forecasts showing already anaemic growth becoming even weaker, he'll likely abandon his target to have the national debt falling as a share of GDP by 2015-16 and announce that an austerity programme originally intended to last for five years (2010-2015) will now last for eight (2010-2018).
The Tories will now enter the election with debt rising as a percentage of GDP, not falling. The Chancellor is right to abandon his second fiscal rule (the first - to eliminate the structural deficit over a rolling, five-year period - is likely to be narrowly met), rather than announce even greater tightening, but he has indisputably failed on his own terms. Based on the current trend, Osborne will announce in his 2014 Autumn Statement that austerity will last for another full parliament - until 2020. To paraphrase Cameron, the bad news will keep coming.