Whether by design or by chance, (probably the latter), the one issue David Cameron would prefer not to talk about today will have slipped many people’s minds by the time of the evening headlines: Britain’s debt mountain.
But this does not mean that the issue will not revert to the top of the agenda in the coming months.
The issue was eclipsed mainly by the prime minister’s magisterial statement on the Hillsborough disaster, which is set to be the big political story of the day. The report’s revelations about doctored documents and attempts to smear the deceased were read out to a silent Commons straight after prime minister’s questions.
During PMQs itself Ed Miliband sought to nail down Cameron over the big debt issue but the prime minister successfully swerved away from the subject.
The government has two fiscal targets.
1] It intends to get rid of the structural deficit by the end of a five-year period. That has conveniently already slipped from 2015/15 to 2016/17.
2] Debt as a proportion of GDP should have fallen by 2015. Unfortunately for the coalition, this target is not flexible at all.
The PM’s spokesman insisted this morning that the fiscal mandate was still on track.
But Miliband repeatedly warned that the government was going to miss its attempts to cut Britain’s debts. The lingering recession has meant that tax receipts are far below where the government had hoped for this period.
“Borrowing is up 25 per cent,” said the Labour leader, pointing out that new debts were £9.3bn higher in the first four months of the year than the same period of 2011.
Cameron retaliated, arguing that under Labour those debts could be even heavier and the target even less likely to be hit.
A million net new jobs had been created by the private sector since 2010, the prime minister said.
The debate then shifted ground to issues such as the 50p top rate of income tax and taunts between the two leaders: Miliband mocking Cameron for being “butch” and Cameron mocking Miliband for having a new “guru” who has written a book called “The Road to Nowhere”.
Somewhere along the way, the main focus was lost: is the austerity drive for nought and will it be abandoned, or partially abandoned, in the autumn?
The key moment could be when the independent Office for Budget Responsibility issues new forecasts, when it will say whether chancellor George Osborne is likely to hit his debt target.
That is when the chancellor might have to make the biggest decision yet of his time in power: whether to make further spending cuts or cast his targets to the four winds.