Osborne: cutting the NHS, not the deficit

Conservatives ordered to correct NHS spending claims as Osborne prepares to announce higher borrowing this year.

"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.

George Osborne pictured at the launch of the Conservatives' general election campaign on 4 January 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why haven't we heard more about the allegations of Tory election fraud?

Police and prosecutors have joined a probe into election fraud allegations that could erase the Tory majority.

The facts

The Conservative Party is facing accusations of breaking election spending rules during its 2015 campaign. Following a Channel 4 investigation, it has admitted to failing to declare more than £38,000 of expenses, money it says was spent on accommodation for Tory activists.

It’s up to the Electoral Commission, which met this week with prosecutors and police forces, to decide whether or not to launch criminal investigations into this spending.

Allegations that the money benefited campaigns in individual seats have put the Tories in hot water – they may have illegally exceeded the constituency-specific spending limit. Making a false spending declaration in an election carries a punishment of up to a year in prison and/or an unlimited fine, and anyone found guilty is also barred from running in a general election or holding any elected office for three years.

But the party claims that, as the money was spent on “BattleBus” activists who were driving around the country, it counts as national spending from HQ, rather than being part of individual candidates’ spending.

The Electoral Commission, Crown Prosecution Service and representatives of 15 police forces met this week to discuss the claims. This has resulted in extra time being allowed (an extension on the 12 months allowed under the Representation of the People Act) for relevant police forces to decide what action to take.

Up to 29 Conservative candidates are thought to have benefitted from “BattleBus” campaigning, many of whom were fighting marginal seats.

As Channel 4’s Michael Crick reported yesterday:

“It will be interesting to see if they actually start naming constituencies where they think offences may have occurred. That would then put elected MPs, Conservative MPs, in the frame.

“And indeed, if they were to look at all the constituencies that we’ve been making allegations about over the last few months, it could actually endanger the government’s majority in the House of Commons.”

The conspiracy claims

So why haven’t we heard about this? It undermines the credibility of the entire Tory general election campaign. The claims could even constitute a scandal that would trigger by-elections across the country and potentially erase the Tory majority. The Tories have a working majority of 18, so if they lost in 18 by-elections (were at least 18 MPs to be found guilty), then they would lose their majority.

Some, particularly online leftwing voices, have accused the media of conspiring not to cover this story. Our rightwing press and the cowardly BBC, they argue, are ignoring a story that could potentially call the Conservative general election victory into question.

Anger about this story being low on the political agenda is understandable. It hasn’t been prominent, considering it could result in prosecutions (indeed, the Devon and Cornwall police force is reportedly already investigating, following its meeting with the Electoral Commission). And if, say, The Sun were a left-leaning paper, it probably would have framed it in a dramatic way that would have grabbed readers’ attention.

But there isn’t a media conspiracy of silence. BBC News has been covering developments since the beginning of the year, including similar claims about 2014 by-elections, and Grant Shapps MP (Conservative chairman during the election) was hauled onto the BBC Daily Politics sofa to respond to the allegations. Channel 4 News has been investigating the story, and breaking developments, from the start. The Mirror has done a big investigation into each of the MPs’ campaigns that have been accused. And all of the main papers have published news reports on the story.

The reason it may seem like silence, or lack of due prominence, is because this is an ongoing investigation. So far there have been no arrests, and the allegations remain just that: allegations. Care is required by media organisations not to falsely accuse anyone of criminal activity. And, pushed by journalists, the Conservatives have given their side of the story, so we’re not going to get a great deal more from them. Now it’s up to police forces to decide to take action.

So far, the only things to report on have been what would and would not count as a breach of electoral law (rather a dry subject), and whether or not the Electoral Commission would achieve an extension on the time allowed by law for investigating (also somewhat technical). And, however dull, these things have been reported. They may not have been shared a huge amount online, or bounced to the top of “most-read” boxes – but this is because readers aren’t usually that interested in the ins and outs of the Representation of the People Act, no matter how much those who want this government toppled wish they were.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.