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Coffee House

David Cameron rebuked for telling porkies about the national debt

1 February 2013

2:16 PM

1 February 2013

2:16 PM

Where was Andrew Dilnot in the Gordon Brown era? The head of the UK Statistics Authority has just rebuked the Prime Minister for telling porkies about debt on his ITV broadcast last week. CoffeeHousers will remember that the PM made the flatly untrue claim that:

‘though this government has had to make some difficult decisions, we are making progress. We’re paying down Britain’s debts.’

The truth is that his government will  increase Britain’s debt by 58 per cent, and by more over five years than Labour did over 13 years.  Just last week, we learned the national debt had hit £1,111 billion and it’s heading to £1,534 billion. Put this into perspective: the Libya campaign cost £200 million. The national debt has risen by more than that today so far, and it’s only lunchtime.

Dilnot’s letter, sent to Labour’s Rachel Reeves (who lodged the complaint) and pointedly copied to Cameron’s Chief of Staff, reads as follows:

‘It is clearly important for all parties to public debate in this area to understand the relevant statistical definitions and to distinguish changes in the level of debt outstanding from changes in borrowing per period, and to reflect these in their communication of the statistical trends involved.’

I’d have written it differently:

If a financier misleads, he can go to prison — and quite right too. But there are, alas, no laws obliging politicians to tell the truth about debt. They should because there is no such thing as ‘government debt,’ only debt which government foists on the  public for collection via higher taxes over a decade or two. Or three. Every penny David Cameron borrows today (and he will borrow 44,000,000,000 pennies today) will have to be paid off by voters, their children or their grandchildren.

Forget politics, forget spin, forget electoral strategy. This about basic decency. Ministers should level with the public about the debt they are putting on other people’s shoulders. You can’t use weasel words like ‘deal with the debt’, which are designed to give the impression of lowering debt. You can’t tell people you’re ‘wiping the slate clean’ when you’re taking UK debt levels from £786 billion to £1,534 billion.

When it comes to the national debt, ministers need to speak clearly and honestly. Those who cannot bring themselves to so should be flogging stuff from a black bag on Oxford St, not holding public office. Just 6 per cent of the public realise the debt is rising. This shows an appalling honesty deficit in the national debate: a deficit which the Prime Minister has a duty to close.

I wouldn’t blog if Cameron’s ITV broadcast was just one slip of the tongue. But it fits a trend. Here’s Osborne asking the 2011 Tory conference to imagine a future free from debt (yes, the same Chancellor who drew the scary pink part of the graph at the top):

Here’s Cameron on ITV again in September claiming his mission is to ‘get the debt down’:

Here’s Nick Clegg telling Essex factory workers that he will ‘wipe the slate clean’ of debt:

This was such a misleading analogy that Clegg was hauled up for it by The Guardian. But he has constantly repeated: the below from Radio 2 in October:

And on Sky News in December:

So is any surprise that just 10pc realise that the government is massively increasing debt? Might the fact they everyone is misled be connected to the amount of misleading being conducted from the highest levels of government? A video from my colleagues at the Centre for Policy Studies sums it up nicely:

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