Why Labour should be wary of attacking Osborne over borrowing

By repeatedly criticising the Chancellor for missing his deficit targets, the party risks reinforcing the impression that borrowing is always an economic ill.

George Osborne is fond of boasting that the deficit has fallen "each and every year" under the coalition, so it was unfortunate for the Chancellor when revisions made by the ONS last week meant that borrowing was officially higher in 2012-13 (£118.8bn) than in 2011-12 (£118.5bn).

At today's Treasury questions, Ed Balls and the rest of Labour's hit squad repeatedly attempted to force the Chancellor to concede as much, but Osborne gave no ground. He (correctly) pointed out that borrowing was only higher last year (2012-13) because the ONS had revised the 2011-12 figure down (by £2.4bn), "which was actually good news", and that, in GDP terms, the deficit fell from 7.8 per cent to 7.7 per cent. Along the way, the vampiric Osborne suggested that taking lessons from Balls on how to balance the books was like "getting a lesson from Dracula on how to look after a blood bank". 

Still, the facts are the facts: on the measure traditionally favoured by the Chancellor, borrowing rose last year. In a final attempt to force the truth out of him, Balls raised a point of order with the Speaker, warning that Osborne may have "inadvertently misled the House", but Bercow brushed it aside.

In so doing, he may have done the shadow chancellor a favour. Balls might be right when he points out that Osborne has borrowed billions more than expected but this line of attack is less convincing when Labour's Keynesian strategy is explicitly based on borrowing even more. The difference, of course, is that while Labour would borrow for growth (in the form of higher infrastructure spending), the coalition is borrowing to meet the cost of failure (in the form of lower growth and higher long-term unemployment). But while this might be a coherent economic position, politically, it's a tough sell. 

Rather than becoming trapped in a technical debate about the deficit, Labour would be wiser to focus on living standards and growth, but if it wants to continue to attack Osborne on this territory it will need a much better explanation of its own approach. Without clearly setting out how and why it would borrow for growth, the party merely reinforces the impression that borrowing is always and everywhere an economic ill. And that only strengthens Osborne's hand. 

George Osborne and Ed Balls attend the State Opening of Parliament, in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster on May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.