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By Peter Hoskin
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You
might have expected last night’s Conservative Party broadcast to do one of two
things: nicely cap off what was, on the whole, a successful day for David
Cameron, or just go unnoticed under the weight of so much referendum coverage.
As it is, it’s done neither. My old boss at The Spectator, Fraser Nelson, has written
in admonition
of the three-minute video. It is, he says, “so astonishingly
dishonest that it really would have disgraced Gordon Brown” – and, what’s more,
he has a point.

The
dishonesty in question comes from Mr Cameron himself, who says to camera that “we’re
paying down Britain’s debts”. But this claim just doesn’t bear comparison to
the facts. Looking at the latest figures, the national debt has already risen by 41 per cent, from £786.4 billion to £1111.4 billion, under this Government. It’s
forecast to rise by around another £300 billion before the next election:


Graph 1

In
no way does that correspond to “paying down Britain’s debts”. And the same goes
for other figures showing the national debt as a percentage of GDP. Before the
last Autumn Statement, this ratio was expected to rise all the way until 2014-15,
before declining
slightly
. But now it keeps on going up until beyond the end of this
Parliament:

Graph 2

Even
that little decline in 2016-17 can’t be counted as “paying down Britain’s debts”;
and not just because it lies outside the lifespan of this government, but also because
the cash pile of debt will still be getting bigger – it’s just that the GDP forecasts
that are compensating for it.

I
used to highlight this grand untruth during my time at The Spectator—for
instance, here
and here—and
almost every time it comes down to a confusion (deliberate or not) between the debt
and the deficit. The deficit is basically the borrowing that accumulates to
create our debt, and this the government has cut and will continue to cut. But
the fact that there is still borrowing happening means that the debt will
continue to rise.

But
rather than explain that—or just talk in terms of deficit reduction, as the
start of last night’s broadcast did—politicians tend to use the word “debt” as
though it means the same thing as “deficit”. Gordon Brown did it, when he told
Gillian Duffy
that Labour had a plan to “cut the debt by half over the four
years”. George Osborne does it, when he talks of “paying off our national
credit card”. And David Cameron did it on camera last night. It’s immensely
disheartening.

This
isn’t to attack the Government’s deficit reduction plan—which I don’t think could
go much faster—but the way they sometimes sell it. Polls
show
that voters are still uncertain about what is being achieved and
argued for; yet this isn’t their fault, but the fault of politicians for conducting
such a shocking public debate. Westminster risks onehelluva backlash should people
realise that the truth isn’t the same as what’s been said to them.

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