Another Cameron myth: the coalition hasn't reduced the deficit by "a quarter"

The most recent figures show that current borrowing has fallen by just 6.4 per cent since 2010, while net borrowing has fallen by 18.3 per cent.

David Cameron was caught out last week when he falsely claimed in a Conservative Party political broadcast that the coalition was "paying down Britain's debts" (the national debt has risen from £811.3bn to £1.11trn since he entered office). But what of his even more frequent boast to have reduced the deficit by "a quarter"? The Conservatives' website states

Dealing with our debts means we have had to take tough decisions. But we are making progress: in the two years since we came to office, we’ve already cleared one quarter of the deficit left by Labour.

The Tories' claim is based on the fact that public sector net borrowing fell from £159bn in 2009/10 to £121.6bn in 2011/12, a reduction of 24 per cent.  But since the net borrowing figure includes investment spending, which even Nick Clegg now concedes was cut too fast (capital spending fell from £48.5bn in 09/10 to £28bn in 11/12, a 42.3 per cent reduction), a better test of the coalition's fiscal rectitude is current borrowing, which reflects the difference between revenue and day-to-day (non-investment) spending. On this measure, borrowing has fallen from £110.5bn in 09/10 to £93.6bn in 11/12, a notably smaller reduction of 15.3 per cent. The shortfall in revenues caused by the near-absence of growth since the Spending Review in 2010 and the higher welfare bills caused by the rise in long-term unemployment have left Osborne unable to meet his deficit targets.

The coalition's boast to have reduced borrowing by a quarter also depends on ignoring all the figures since April 2012, when the last financial year (11/12) ended. If we take into account the figures since then (see table PSF1 on p.36) , the picture is even worse. Over the last 12 months (January 2012-December 2012), the government's net borrowing stands at £128.9bn (excluding the one-off transfer of Royal Mail pension assets to the public sector), an increase of 5.8 per cent since 2011, when borrowing was £121.4bn, and a fall of only 18.3 per cent since 09/10. As for current borrowing, that stands at £103.4bn over the last year, a reduction of just 6.4 per cent since 09/10 (when current borrowing was £110.5bn). 

So, to summarise, the coalition reduced net borrowing by 24 per cent between 09/10 and 11/12 but only by slashing infrastructure spending by 42 per cent and tipping the UK into a double-dip recession and, perhaps, a triple-dip. Current borrowing has fallen by a smaller 15.3 per cent over that period. 

If, unlike Cameron, we take into account the borrowing figures since April 2012 , net borrowing has fallen by 18.3 per cent since 09/10, while current borrowing has fallen by just 6.4 per cent.

For a government whose raison d'etre is deficit reduction ("The deficit reduction programme takes precedence over any of the other measures in this agreement," states the Coalition Agreement), the coalition really isn't very good at it. 

David Cameron addresses a session of the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in the Swiss resort of Davos. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder