PMQs review: professor Miliband gives Cameron an economics lesson

The Labour leader had the stats on his side but will voters accept his distinction between 'good' borrowing and 'bad' borrowing?

It's often forgotten that Ed Balls isn't the only economist on the Labour frontbench; Ed Miliband also taught the subject at Harvard while on sabbatical from the Treasury and he gave David Cameron a suitably stern lesson at today's PMQs. In a stat-heavy assault on the coalition's economic record, he reminded Cameron that the economy had grown by just 0.4 per cent since October 2010 (it was expected to grow by more than five per cent), that the UK had grown more slowly than 17 of the G20 countries and that this was now the weakest recovery for more than a hundred years. 

Confronted by that record, Cameron played a bad hand as well as he could. He was aided by Labour MPs who foolishly cheered when he conceded that the economy shrank by 0.3 per cent in the most recent quarter, an error that the PM quickly pounced on. "Only honourable members opposite could cheer that news," he fumed. From there, he ridiculed what he called Labour's "three-point plan": "more spending, more borrowing more debt". 

After Miliband noted that the deficit so far this year was £7.2bn (7.3 per cent) higher than last year, Cameron replied, "if he thinks there's a problem with borrowing, why does he want to borrow more?" It is the question that Labour has struggled to answer since the election. The Tories' credit card analogy may be a hackneyed one but it is easier to explain to the electorate than Keynes's paradox of thrift. In response to Cameron, Miliband cried: "he's borrowing for failure!" The Labour leader's hope is that the public will distinguish between the coalition's 'bad' borrowing, driven by higher welfare bills, and his party's 'good' borrowing (a VAT cut, national insurance holiday, higher infrastructure spending and the like). But without explicitly declaring that Labour would borrow for growth (and explaining why), he risks reinforcing the impression that borrowing is always and everywhere a bad thing. 

Miliband, aware that polls show more voters continue to blame Labour (26 per cent) for the cuts than the coalition (21 per cent), has never conceded that his party would, at least temporarily, borrow more than the coalition. For now, with the public more worried about the disappearance of growth, he can avoid further scrutiny. But at some point before the election, Labour will need to say what its plans would mean for deficit reduction. Anything else will allow the Tories to claim they'd make "the same mistakes" all over again. 

Ed Miliband said that David Cameron was "borrowing for failure". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.