So – how did it go? Yesterday, Tory HQ yesterday issued a poster with the misleading claim that the deficit had been ‘halved’ where in fact the reduction has been closer to a third (see below). In election campaigns, a ‘porkie*’ is introduced in stages. It debuts when dropped into a speech or article. If no one complains, it gets used again with a bit more boldness. And if there’s still no pushback, it’ll be used bigger – say, on a poster. As it was with Labour’s £35bn Tory cuts porkie, so it is with Osborne’s ‘halved the deficit’ porkie.
But judging by today’s newspapers, the 'poster' stage of this porkie seems to have gone rather badly.
“Fib! Fury over Tory poster claim that party has 'halved the deficit’” says the Daily Mail. Its deputy editor, Tony Gallagher, has warned HM Treasury that this is how his newspaper will treat spin - from any party...
“Tories accused of lying in campaign poster that claims deficit has halved” says the Independent.
"David Cameron is to put the Union Jack and questionable claims about the deficit at the heart of the Tory election campaign" says The Times
“Cameron launches election campaign with controversial deficit claim” says the Guardian, again focusing on the dodgy nature of ‘halving’ claim.
And here’s the FT's intro...
“David Cameron and George Osborne have launched the Conservative general election campaign with a contentious claim that they have succeeded in halving the deficit...”
The FT knows a thing or two about using clear language for readers interested in finance. As regular readers know, when it writes about ‘the deficit’ it refers to cash, rather than a GDP ratio. If it refers to a GDP ratio, it says so.
And yesterday, Radio 4's World at One led on the porkie as well.
So a tiny, pointless trick eclipsed Osborne’s genuine achievements: the jobs miracle, the business creation (helped by his corporation tax cuts) and more. Even the Daily Mail, hardly a Miliband cheerleader, zeroed in on the ‘fib’ – and this is what journalists do when they encounter a fib. They tend to challenge and confront it, and the row about the fib ends up becoming the story.
So Osborne's claim to have ‘halved the deficit’ without referring to GDP is not just dishonest, it’s bad politics. Very bad politics.
David Cameron has a long line of genuine, hard-won achievements that he can campaign on. George Osborne flunked his deficit reduction programme (below) which I accept is embarrassing for him, but if he tries to spin his way out of this embarrassment he just makes it far worse. Far better focus on the real things that he got right.
I hope the Tories learn lessons from this. Credibility is important in politics, and the campaign has a very long way to go.
* A porkie is an election statement which is misleading, but carries with it a long and technical explanation intended to stop anyone questioning it. In this case, the claim is explained by the idea that the word 'deficit' is defined as a ratio of PSNB/GDP and this ratio (which economists find more useful than straight cash) has halved over the five years.
And here's Osborne's original deficit plan, vs outcome. The deficit is forecast to be £91.3bn in 2014-15, almost three times the £37bn that he originally said it would be by now. In those days, he was mocking Labour for its poverty of ambition in merely halving the deficit.