A former Conservative minister has echoed Jeremy Corbyn by calling for a dramatic U-turn to end “austerity” in this month’s Budget.
Nick Boles broke ranks by urging the Chancellor to rip up seven years of Tory economic policy, abandoning the flagship target to wipe out the Budget deficit.
He warned Theresa May and Philip Hammond they would be defeated at the next election if – after seven years – they persisted with trying to balance the books, as public support fades.
And he sided with Labour by arguing that higher investment spending was needed to “generate a return to the economy” and end Britain’s productivity crisis.
“We should stop trying to cut [the deficit] any further,” said Mr Boles, who has written a book on how to boost Tory fortunes.
“We should drop our surplus target because the urgent priority now is to get productivity up and to get real wages up.
“The only way to get productivity up is by increasing investment. I think we now need to make that the focus of government.”
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he widened his criticism, adding: “Government is like a bicycle. Unless it is moving forwards, it falls over.
“And, at the moment, the Government does look a bit wobbly. The reason why it is a bit wobbly is because it doesn’t have a clear direction and a clear set of policies.”
The intervention is unlikely to be welcomed by Mr Hammond, who is expected to stick to the target of removing the deficit by the mid-2020s on Budget Day on 22 November.
But it delivers a boost to Labour, making it harder for the Conservatives to attack the party’s economic message that austerity is self-defeating and must end.
Mr Boles was a close ally of David Cameron in his drive to modernise the Tory party, serving as minister between 2012 and 2016.
He said austerity was the right policy when the deficit stood at 10 per cent of GDP, but it was “absolutely fine” for the deficit to remain at its current level of around 2.6 per cent indefinitely.
“That is less than the European Union standard. Many governments run a deficit at that sort of level, year in year out.”
On the danger of continuing with austerity, Mr Boles said: “We can’t expect to be re-elected if we have no new story to tell and no new direction.”
At the last election, Labour vowed to plough £250bn into infrastructure, arguing: “Our country and its people have been held back by a lack of investment in the backbone of a modern economy”.
It said the party would only aim to eliminate the deficit in day-to-day spending, over five years.
The Conservative manifesto pledged to remove the overall deficit, including investment spending, by 2025 – a decade later than planned – but the target is now widely thought to be unachievable.
In the Budget, Mr Hammond must find billions for the NHS, for higher public sector pay and to halt punishing benefit cuts, while tax rises look politically impossible.