New year, new porkies from Conservative HQ. It has opened 2015 with a poster that involves a deception (above): ‘the defict halved’. It’s a relatively small deception: the deficit has been reduced by a third (see graph below) just as David Cameron was saying only a few weeks ago. But this poster makes a more important, and more depressing point: the Tory leadership is prepared to use dishonesty as a weapon in this election campaign.
Here’s how I suspect it all unravelled. George Osborne invented the porkie: that you can say ‘the deficit has been halved’ if, when challenged, you later claim that you’re referring not the deficit, but to a ratio: a deficit/GDP ratio. This is a valid metric, but it’s not “the deficit”.
This is not an argument about economics, but about language – and honesty in politics. Yesterday, in the Today programme, Robert Peston was asked about “the deficit”. “It’s £91 billion,” he said – as you’d expect. No one would reply to that question saying: “It’s about 5 per cent”. This is why the Tory claim is misleading: the word ‘deficit’ means the amount, in cash, that a government borrows to finance its spending.
Last month, David Cameron told the truth in PMQs when he said the deficit had been cut by a third. Minutes later, Osborne said it has been halved. But under parliamentary rules, he cannot make misleading statements in the Commons so he said it properly: the deficit has halved ‘as a share of GDP’.
Since then, this deficit porkie has made two further outings: it has been written into an official script used by the Prime Minister and in an email sent by Grant Shapps, chairman of the Conservative Party. But today’s poster is the most blatant. They’ll be testing the ground again, to see how much reaction this gathers. If it’s just the bloggers: Coffee House and Guido, then you can be sure that the porkie will be back*.
Every time a Tory MP repeats this porkie, we’ll add it to the record on CoffeeHouse – I suspect most are deeply uncomfortable with Osborne’s ruse, and will avoid misleading voters on the deficit if they can help it.
Take Robert Halfon, one of the most impressive Tory MPs. He retweeted the poster, as MPs are kind of obliged to do, but did not repeat the falsehood. Nor did he repeat Shapps’s tendentious claim that the 2 million apprentice places created helped ‘young’ people – a good number of that 2 million comes from the over-25s. So ‘young’ is stretching the truth a bit.
Every line of Halfon’s tweet is completely accurate. But that’s his trademark: he’s serious about reforming politics, and serious about honesty in politics. So this will be an interesting test: which Tory MPs will use the misleading ‘deficit halved’ line, and which will want to fight this campaign sticking to the truth?
No one regulates truth in politics. Take at the above poster: if a supermarket said it had halved prices, but actually mean it halved them as a share of the weekly shopping budget, the Advertising Standards Authority would force a correction. But the ASA has no remit over political posters, so politicians can lie with impunity. Here’s what it has to say:-
As the 2015 General Election approaches, we’re reminding everyone why we can’t look into complaints about political ads – they’re not subject to the Advertising Code. The best course of action for anyone with concerns about a political ad is to contact the party responsible and exercise your democratic right to tell them what you think.
As if that would work! So there is nothing stopping factual inaccuracies going into political posters. But there is nothing forcing individual MPs to repeat what they will know is a deception that casts doubt over everything else tat they say. So let’s see how this unfolds.
And for the record, here’s the national debt.
** Ch4 just called me about this, so hopefully broadcasters will be holding the Tories to account on this. (I’m in Corralejo, and they couldn’t send a crew…)