Labour makes official complaint over Cameron's debt lies

Rachel Reeves writes to the UK Statistics Authority after Cameron claimed in a Conservative Party political broadcast that the coalition "was paying down Britain’s debts".

In last night's Conservative Party political broadcast, David Cameron boasted that the coalition "was paying down Britain’s debts". Except, of course, it's not. Since Cameron entered office, the national debt has risen from £811.3bn (55.3 per cent of GDP) to £1.11trn (70.7 per cent of GDP) and, owing to the lack of growth, the government is set to borrow billions more than Labour planned (the plan Cameron claimed would "bankrupt" Britain).

By 2014-15, the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that debt will have increased to £1.4trn (79 per cent of GDP). It's true that the coalition has reduced annual borrowing (the deficit) by 24 per cent since coming to power (from £159 in 2009-10 to £121.6bn in 2011-12), albeit by slashing infrastructure spending, but it's a flat-out untruth to claim that it's "paying down" our debts. 

In response, Labour's shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Rachel Reeves, a former Bank of England economist, has written to the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Andrew Dilnot, asking him to investigate Cameron's misleading statement. It's worth noting that the Stats Authority has previously forced the Conservatives to correct their claim to have increased real-terms spending on the NHS "in each of the last two years", so there's a good chance of a critical response. 

Here's Reeves's letter in full. 

Andrew Dilnot CBE
Chair, UK Statistics Authority
1 Drummond Gate

24 January 2013

Dear Andrew

I am sure you will agree that it is vital that public debate is informed by accurate use of statistics.

However, in a Party Political Broadcast by the Conservative Party last night, the Prime Minister said:

“We are now halfway through the coalition’s time in government and in two and a half years we have achieved a lot but I know people don’t just want to hear from me, they want to know the facts… So though this government has had to make some difficult decisions, we are making progress. We are paying down Britain’s debts.”

As you will be aware, figures from the Office for National Statistics published this week show that the national debt is not being paid down, but is actually rising. Since this government came to office, public sector net debt has risen from £811.3 billion (55.3 per cent of GDP) in the second quarter of 2010, to £1,111.4 billion at the end of December 2012 (70.7 per cent of GDP).

The Office for Budget Responsibility has also forecast that public sector net debt will continue to rise and the government’s target to get it falling by 2015-16 will not be met.

This is not the first time government Ministers have made similar claims about the national debt. However, last night’s Party Political Broadcast is the first occasion I am aware of when the Prime Minister has made such a claim in a scripted broadcast. This suggests that the Conservative Party may be attempting to deliberately mislead the public about these statistics and the government’s record.

I would be grateful if you could bring some clarity to the situation and advise on how we can ensure that in the future debate on the national debt is accurate and based on the facts.

Yours sincerely,

Rachel Reeves MP

Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Rachel Reeves.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.