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.