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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle