How Theresa May lied about my views on Labour’s economic policy

I have never argued that the party’s “numbers did not add up”. But at PMQs, May was happy to misquote me. 

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When I became part of John McDonnell’s Economic Advisory Council I knew that would put me in the political spotlight. I write about what I helped achieve in that role in my forthcoming book. I left over Labour’s support for Brexit in part because my clear and public anti-Brexit views could be used to attack the party, when the people driving Brexit were Conservatives. I found out yesterday that at PMQs the Prime Minister was carrying on regardless, although in this case it was over Labour’s 2017 manifesto.

In reality, I was strongly supportive of Labour’s overall fiscal stance in 2017. I wrote a lot on my blog before the election, and a summary of my views are in a chapter in a book of essays by various authors published by Verso and edited by McDonnell. The point I wanted to stress was that it didn’t matter if the IFS were right that the numbers didn’t add up, because the fiscal stance was good for the economy, and could well satisfy Labour's very good Fiscal Credibility Rule.

The paragraph that says all this in the book starts: “Let us suppose the IFS was correct…”. I go on to argue, in that case, that the ex ante deficit would have boosted the economy and it might not have added to the deficit ex post.

Unfortunately, May said, holding a copy of the book in her hand: “In an article by an economic adviser to the Labour Party, he says about their manifesto, ‘the numbers did not add up’. That this was a ‘welcome feature’ and ‘largely irrelevant’. Well, it may be irrelevant to the Rt Hon Gentleman and the shadow chancellor, but it’s not irrelevant to the people’s whose taxes go up, whose jobs are lost and whose taxes pay Labour’s debt.”

Nowhere in the article did I say I thought the numbers did not add up. I was clearly misquoted. If you say otherwise, imagine I write an article that says “suppose austerity is expansionary” and goes on to explain how that generates consequences that contradict reality. It is called a proof by contradiction, and that is similar to the structure of my argument. To report that I said “austerity is expansionary’” would be ridiculous. If it was done to score political points you would conclude it was a lie.

Was this an unfortunate case of misreading? It seems extremely implausible. I’m certain that when the PM, or more probably, some adviser misquotes someone in a draft PMQ response, someone - possibly even the person themselves - checks that the quote is correct. You have to have serious comprehension difficulties to misunderstand the meaning of “Let us suppose”.

So I tweeted this: “Apparently the Prime Minister quoted me saying about Labour's 2017 manifesto ‘the numbers did not add up’. In fact, I said ‘Let us suppose the IFS was correct’ and examined consequences. I have never taken a view on whether they did/didn't add up. If that is what she said, she lied.”

I later looked at a recording of PMQs and she did indeed say that. Now, maybe I am wrong about a deliberate lie told to gain political effect. If it was an honest mistake, she or someone who works for her can explain to me how that mistake was made. I asked CCHQ for an apology, but I am not holding my breath.

The Mirror picked it up here, as did the BBC in their PMQ fact check. In the scheme of things the issue is very minor, but the Prime Minister lying whatever the context should be important.

The sad thing is that no one is surprised by this kind of thing any more. We in the UK look at Trump’s lying with horror and think this is something uniquely American. But this government has been pulled up countless times (e.g. here) for misleading the public by misusing statistics and, of course, the lies of the Brexiters are shameless.

The majority of press titles will ignore or play down any criticism of Conservative ministers or the PM (unless it is over Brexit), and the BBC is timid to say the least. It is asymmetrical of course: any mistakes the other side makes are examined in great detail. If you do not have the media to call out lies, they will pass as the truth and democracy dies.

 Simon Wren-Lewis is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and an emeritus fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.