Can the Tories really be planning to fight the next election lying about the deficit? I ask because in his speech today, David Cameron has just repeated an untrue claim which made its debut in a George Osborne newspaper article a few days ago: that they have 'halved' the deficit*. Here's what the Prime Minister had to say:
'Already we have cut the deficit in half and we have set out clear steps to finish the job by 2018.'
If honesty matters at all in politics, neither Cameron or Osborne should get away with this.
This is no slip of the tongue - it was in the script. The Tories are testing the water, seeing if the media will kick up. If no fuss is made, then I suspect both will go all the way through to the election falsely claiming to have "halved" the deficit.
Cameron did, originally, plan to cut the deficit in half over the lifetime of this parliament. But he didn’t, and ended up borrowing even more than the Labour plans that he and George Osborne once derided as being dangerous. Embarrassingly, the thing they banged on about most was perhaps their biggest failure in office. They have had plenty of successes - on jobs, schools, welfare reform. But on the deficit, well, the above image shows it not being halved.
Even on the most generous interpretation, the deficit will be halved in the year ending April 2016. That's if you take the first full financial year of Coalition government (2010-11) as the starting point. A more accurate way of doing it would be to look at the monthly deficit figures, in which case the real halving of the deficit is due to happen even later.
Politically, this failure on the deficit is a problem for the Tories: how to claim, when the next election came, that the they were much better when it came to debt?
Until Osborne’s Autumn Statement, Cameron was telling the truth about the deficit – that it had been brought down by a third. But the Autumn Statement, Osborne introduced a new tricksy verbal formula: that he had "halved" the deficit - but, wait for it... as a share of GDP. An inherently misleading phrase, but technically defensible.
But if you drop the GDP reference then it become a falsehood. Exhibit A is this extract from George Osborne's subsequent Sunday Times op-ed:
'There has not been the big deterioration in the public finances that many had been predicting in the weeks leading up to last Wednesday. Instead the deficit has been halved’
In dropping crucial second part of that statement - 'as a share of GDP' - he stretches the truth until the elastic snaps - rendering the above sentence factually inaccurate.
I went to town blogging about this at the time, because it didn't read to me like a careless slip from Osborne. It looked like a strategy, a Gordon Brown-style Big Lie being minted. That the Tories, having failed to halve the deficit, would now say they had anyway – and if any journalist complained, they’d bulldoze complaints aside, accusing them of being economically ignorant.
When you complain - as I have done - you're given the absurd defence that when a listener hears "halved the deficit" the listener will automatically assume that Osborne is talking about the deficit/GDP ratio. Given that no one in parliament, not even Cameron, has ever talked about the deficit in this way before this defence is simply not plausible.
A deficit, as any fule no, is measured in pounds sterling. 'Halving that deficit' can only mean one thing. The Tories really should be ashamed at this. It's bad enough that they failed to stick to their deficit reduction plan, but even worse that they should be so dishonest.
UPDATE: As predicted, No.10 is trying this 'of course "half" means "half as a proportion of GDP" defence. Isabel has the full exchange here.
PS: At the start of last year, the Prime Minister claimed to be 'paying down Britain's debts'. If only! Audio below.
* I'm grateful to my former Scotsman colleague Kevin Schofield for pointing this out. If anyone catches any MP claiming that the deficit has halved, please flag up to me on Twitter — we'll be keeping a rogue's gallery or porkies (and those who serve them) as the election campaign gets underway.