Conservative Diary

« David Cameron will enjoy this morning's newspapers | Main | Ruth Davidson moves to distance Scotland's Conservatives from England's »

Fraser Nelson is right – the Tories should stop saying that they’re paying down Britain’s debts

By Peter Hoskin
Follow Peter on Twitter

You might have expected last night’s Conservative Party broadcast to do one of two things: nicely cap off what was, on the whole, a successful day for David Cameron, or just go unnoticed under the weight of so much referendum coverage. As it is, it’s done neither. My old boss at The Spectator, Fraser Nelson, has written in admonition of the three-minute video. It is, he says, “so astonishingly dishonest that it really would have disgraced Gordon Brown” – and, what’s more, he has a point.

The dishonesty in question comes from Mr Cameron himself, who says to camera that “we’re paying down Britain’s debts”. But this claim just doesn’t bear comparison to the facts. Looking at the latest figures, the national debt has already risen by 41 per cent, from £786.4 billion to £1111.4 billion, under this Government. It’s forecast to rise by around another £300 billion before the next election:

Graph 1

In no way does that correspond to “paying down Britain’s debts”. And the same goes for other figures showing the national debt as a percentage of GDP. Before the last Autumn Statement, this ratio was expected to rise all the way until 2014-15, before declining slightly. But now it keeps on going up until beyond the end of this Parliament:

Graph 2

Even that little decline in 2016-17 can’t be counted as “paying down Britain’s debts”; and not just because it lies outside the lifespan of this government, but also because the cash pile of debt will still be getting bigger – it’s just that the GDP forecasts that are compensating for it.

I used to highlight this grand untruth during my time at The Spectator—for instance, here and here—and almost every time it comes down to a confusion (deliberate or not) between the debt and the deficit. The deficit is basically the borrowing that accumulates to create our debt, and this the government has cut and will continue to cut. But the fact that there is still borrowing happening means that the debt will continue to rise.

But rather than explain that—or just talk in terms of deficit reduction, as the start of last night’s broadcast did—politicians tend to use the word “debt” as though it means the same thing as “deficit”. Gordon Brown did it, when he told Gillian Duffy that Labour had a plan to “cut the debt by half over the four years”. George Osborne does it, when he talks of “paying off our national credit card”. And David Cameron did it on camera last night. It’s immensely disheartening.

This isn’t to attack the Government’s deficit reduction plan—which I don’t think could go much faster—but the way they sometimes sell it. Polls show that voters are still uncertain about what is being achieved and argued for; yet this isn’t their fault, but the fault of politicians for conducting such a shocking public debate. Westminster risks onehelluva backlash should people realise that the truth isn’t the same as what’s been said to them.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.