Fraser Nelson, the excellent editor of The Spectator, has become heated about what he called a party's plan to "fight the next election lying about the deficit". There are two surprising things about this, and two regrettable things. The first surprising thing is that Nelson, the right-wing editor of a Conservative weekly, referred to a claim made by David Cameron. The second is that he is wrong.
Nelson took exception to the claim first made by George Osborne in the Autumn Statement last month that he had halved the deficit. It was repeated by the Prime Minister and last week it was put on the first Tory poster of the year. Nelson pointed out that the deficit – the annual amount Government has to borrow to cover the gap between spending and what it gets in – had fallen from £153bn in 2009-10 to £91bn in the current tax year. That certainly does not look like it has halved.
However, nothing in economics is quite what it seems. Osborne did not define his terms in his statement, but was quick to point out afterwards that he was talking about the deficit not in cash amounts but as a share of national income. Because the economy has grown since the 2010 general election, the deficit as a proportion of GDP has fallen from 10.2 per cent to 5.0 per cent. As this is the most sensible way to express the deficit, and is the measure with which the independent Office for Budget Responsibility concerns itself – Osborne's claim is therefore perfectly correct.
I am all for precision in language, and it would have been better if the Chancellor had included half a sentence in his original claim, "as a share of GDP", but Nelson's indignation is out of proportion.
This is regrettable, first, because it is a distraction from more serious criticisms of the Government's record on tax and spending. Indeed, the most important point about the claim to have halved the deficit is that it is roughly half the progress that Osborne promised. This lot were elected on a pledge to close the deficit entirely in this parliament, and they were joined in a coalition by the other lot, the ones who changed their minds about the deficit the moment the votes were counted.
Experts' predictions for the general election
Experts' predictions for the general election
1/10 Andrew Hawkins (ComRes)
Just as the polls in 2010 pointed to no overall majority for any party, the overwhelming evidence points to Labour either being the largest party or getting a small majority, probably below 20. The Lib Dems and SNP should each win between 25 and 35 seats, with single-figure wins for both Ukip and the Greens.
2/10 Joe Twyman (YouGov)
I predict it will be close. I predict a few tremors, though earthquakes are unlikely. I predict the eventual winner may not be the direct result of public opinion, but instead the outcome of political negotiations. It’s too early to predict numbers given all the uncertainties surrounding (among other things) Ukip, the SNP and the Lib Dems. It is possible that it will be close between Conservative and Labour in terms of both votes and seats. The Lib Dems might retain 20-30 seats and the balance of power, despite small gains for the SNP, and at most half a dozen Ukip seats. Gun to my head? Labour minority government.
3/10 Ben Page (Ipsos MORI)
A mug’s game for this election months away, but my predictions in order of likelihood: most likely a hung parliament or coalition of some kind, closely followed by either a small Labour majority or an equally small Conservative majority. Given how close the parties are, the unknown performance of Ukip in key marginals, the effect of incumbency on Lib Dem losses, the final size of SNP surge and so on, to be more precise is simply foolish! Professor Tetlock, who found that forecasts by experts were only slightly better than throwing dice, weighs heavily upon me!
4/10 Rick Nye (Populus)
I can see a hung parliament, where Labour is the largest party in terms of seats – though not necessarily in terms of votes, with the Lib Dems having 30 seats or fewer, the SNP having up to 20 seats and Ukip having no more than five seats. In short, it’s going to get messy and stay messy for some time to come.
5/10 Nick Moon (GfK)
I can’t recall there ever being an election more difficult to predict than this one. I’m confident no party will have an overall majority, with the Tories probably the largest party but no single partner for a viable coalition, with the Lib Dems on 25 seats, the SNP 20, Ukip three, and the Greens one.
6/10 Damian Lyons Lowe (Survation)
We might have expected a workable Labour majority, were it not for the wild-card rise of the SNP in Scotland. Survation’s December Scottish polls suggest an almost complete wipeout by the SNP in Scotland and result in 40+ seat gains – mostly at Labour’s expense. My current predictions are: Labour the largest party by 40-50 seats over the Tories, no overall majority; Tories 235-255 seats; Lib Dems 20-30 seats; SNP 30-40 seats – maybe held back from potential support level by opposition incumbency and tactical voting by pro-unionist voters. Finally, Ukip, 5-10 wins from Conservatives, including Rochester and Clacton, and potentially a single Labour-seat surprise.
7/10 Michelle Harrison (TNS)
The battleground over the next three months is at the kitchen table – the difference between what the statistics tell us about the economy, the experience that Britons are having of managing their household budgets, and where – and if – they believe politics can make a difference. In this regard, the disconnect with the major political parties is more interesting than the horse race.
8/10 James Endersby (Opinium Research)
Our first poll for 2015 shows Labour one point ahead [see above], but polls four months out from an election are snapshots, not predictions. It would be extremely unwise for a pollster to make a firm prediction now. At the moment, Opinium’s estimate on polling day would be the Tories slightly ahead on vote share, but Labour slightly ahead on seats. These numbers are based on a uniform swing, with tweaks to Green and Ukip numbers based on local information: Labour 320 seats, Conservatives 271, Lib Dems 20, SNP 16, Plaid Cymru three, Greens two, Ukip four. A hung parliament with Labour potentially closer to a majority coalition than the Conservatives.
9/10 Martin Boon (ICM)
I’ve not recovered from the Scottish referendum campaign yet, and here we go with another wildcard strewn nail-biter. For me, Labour on 30 per cent will only fractionally nudge past their woeful 2010 showing – behind the Tories on 33 per cent – but enough to secure more seats (290 for Labour, 280 for the Tories) on boundary wackiness. The Lib Dems will secure 14 per cent of the vote and 35 seats; Ukip will also get 14 per cent, but that only gets them a couple of seats. As for Scotland, I’m bewildered, but as you asked I’ll say 30 seats for the SNP, which wipes out a breathing-space victory in seats for Labour.
10/10 Lord Ashcroft (Lord Ashcroft Polls)
Declined to take part. His spokeswoman said: “As he has said many times, his polls are snapshots not predictions.” Health warning: when The Independent on Sunday carried out a similar exercise in April 2010, at the start of that year’s election campaign, eight out of eight pollsters predicted a Conservative overall majority.
Actually, the Tories were elected saying that the deficit should be eliminated altogether in four years, because that was the expected length of this parliament before Osborne had his eureka moment in the coalition negotiations and changed the fixed-term parliament from four years to five. So Osborne has had an extra year to get rid of the deficit and he has managed to do only half of it.
What Nelson ought to be pointing out with his brilliant vehemence is that Osborne has achieved what Alistair Darling promised to do at the last election. Nelson ought to be digging out old quotations from Osborne in Hansard saying: "The truth about Labour's plan is that it would mean billions of pounds more in debt interest" (22 March 2011). Those billions in interest are now being paid by the taxpayer, thanks to Tory-led management of the public finances.
Well, you might say, if Osborne achieved only half of what he set out to do, then Darling might have cut the deficit by merely a quarter. But, again, economics doesn't always work like that. Ed Balls argues that it was a mistake to cut public spending and to raise VAT so sharply in 2010, because that choked off the recovery. We cannot be sure, but I think he is probably right: under Darling the economy might have grown more, and so – as a share of GDP – Labour might indeed have halved the deficit by now.
There are other claims that Cameron makes, though, which are less justifiable than having halved the deficit. "When we came into office in 2010, Britain was on the brink of bankruptcy," the Prime Minister claimed in an email to supporters last week. There is no evidence for that assertion. Interest rates on government bonds, which have been warning signs that Greece, Italy or Spain might default in the past few years, never showed so much as a flicker in Labour's Britain. The only doubt about Britain's credit worthiness came when Moody's and Fitch, the ratings agencies, downgraded us from AAA to Aa1 and AA+ in 2013, when Osborne was Chancellor.
Today, though, we have even greater dishonesty from Labour. Its posters claim: "The Tories want to cut spending on public services back to the levels of the 1930s, when there was no NHS." This really is deliberately misleading, because it refers to spending as a share of the economy when the economy is 10 times larger than in the 1930s, and the "1930s" figure is almost the same as that for the Labour government in 1999-2000. While the reference to the NHS is simply an attempt to frighten people.
I would not say that Andy Burnham and Ed Miliband are lying, however. The second reason Nelson's criticism of Cameron and Osborne is regrettable is the language in which it is expressed. To accuse people of lying in public debate is not just rude, it is a mistake. Even if the Tory leadership were being deliberately misleading, which they were not, it weakens the criticism to resort to insult.
As the wind machine of the election campaign cranks up, I know I am talking into a gale, but let us have less of the "lies", "lying" and "liar".Reuse content