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.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR