Birds fly, fish swim and politicians tell lies, so the old cliché goes. Most of the time, the really big whoppers are so bad that everyone notices them. If a politician tells a porkie about why he took us to war, if an MP fibs about fiddling his expenses, if a minister misleads voters about a sex scandal, we all tend to know. Going into next year’s election, politicians from all the major parties are telling huge lies – and even worse, they expect to get away with them.
Last night the Conservative Party sent out a mass email to supporters in which it claimed “we have already cut the deficit in half”. This is the repetition of an untruth told by David Cameron in a speech on the economy yesterday, who was copying the same untruth told by George Osborne in an article for the Sunday Times. As Fraser Nelson points out, the deficit will not be halved until the year ending April 2016. A porkie, plain and simple.
Osborne’s hair might be receding but his nose is growing longer. The Chancellor spoke with triumphalism during his Autumn Statement, claiming “Britain is back living within its means. Our long term economic plan on course”. Yet public sector net debt was £1.45 trillion in October, while public sector net borrowing was almost £8 billion last month. The vague phrase “living within its means” gives a lot of leeway, but under no possible definition can it be used to describe our current state. And is the plan on course? If Osborne had truly kept to the commitments he made when he came to office, the deficit would be some £50 billion less than it is today. Labour’s plans were more frugal.
But Labour are no better. Last week Ed Balls told the Guardian: “If, at the end of the next parliament, George Osborne actually got his way and brought spending back down to the level of the 1930s, I don’t think this would be the kind of country any of us would want to live in”. Ed Miliband added some colour: “a time before there was a National Health Service and when young people left school at 14”. The figure they referenced was government spending relative to the whole economy, projected to fall to 35% of GDP, the lowest for 80 years. In fact, this figure is around the same as government spending in 2001, and equivalent to day-to-day spending in 2002. There will still be an NHS. Children will still go to school. Labour are being utterly misleading to imply otherwise.
The economy isn’t even the most dishonest debate in British politics right now. Cameron is trying to convince voters he will reduce immigration from Europe, vowing “one last go” at curbing EU migrant numbers as part of his “renegotiation” with Brussels. Labour agree, with Yvette Cooper confirming “it is right to bring it down”. The truth, as both parties know, is that while Britain remains a member of the EU they cannot deliver on these promises. Brussels has made clear it will not negotiate on freedom of movement. Promises to reduce EU immigration while staying in Europe are deeply disingenuous. UKIP are hardly much better. Their claims that “British workers are hit hard by unlimited cheap labour” and that “unlimited EU immigration is to blame for stagnant wages” are not supported by any of the best academic work on the subject.
What about the NHS? On healthcare, one party and one politician above all tells the most fibs. Time and time again Labour’s Andy Burnham tells us “the Tories are privatising the NHS”. Most amusingly, back in 2011 Burnham told voters they had “just 72 hours to save the NHS”, presumably before the Tories destroyed it forever. Again, the truth is far away. Privatisation means transferring ownership of the NHS to private control. A minority of individual services are being contracted out to private providers – a policy backed by the last Labour government – but it is just untrue to say this amounts to privatisation. As for the “72 hours” claim, the NHS is still here some 26,000 hours later.
We expect a certain amount of lying from our politicians. It goes with the territory. Yet at this election every major party is basing its offer to voters on falsehoods. Electoral maths mean it may well turn out to be the case that no one wins on May 7th. Judging by the honesty of the candidates, that is no less than they deserve.