David Cameron: It's responsible to target budget surplus

David Cameron on his plan to put UK economy into surplus

David Cameron has challenged other parties to follow the Conservatives' lead and strive for a budget surplus by 2020, rejecting suggestions that it will inevitably lead to more cuts.

It was the responsible thing to do because another banking crisis could tip the UK "over the brink", he said.

Economists say the target will not be met without more cutbacks after 2016.

But the prime minister said it could be met by freezing spending - or even with higher spending if the economy boomed.

In other developments on the penultimate day of the Conservative Party's annual conference in Manchester:

  • Mr Cameron said he would welcome Boris Johnson back to Parliament while the Mayor of London has urged the Tories to go "flat out" for victory in 2015
  • More patients will be able to visit a GP in the evening or at weekends under government plans
  • The prime minister said he "understood" Ed Miliband's reaction to an article in the Daily Mail about his father and newspapers and politicians should show "judgement" about press limits
  • Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith outlined plans to force the jobless to attend 9-5 classes at job centres
  • Asked about the price of bread in shops, the prime minister admitted his family used a breadmaker
  • Culture Secretary Maria Miller says a new £10m fund will be set up to mark UK historic events, such as forthcoming anniversaries of the Magna Carta and the Battle of Waterloo

The Conservatives say they would continue the coalition's policy of fiscal restraint throughout the next parliament - if they form the next government - with the aim of creating a budget surplus.

Chancellor George Osborne has suggested this could be achieved without any further tax rises.

The government's books have only been in the black - meaning it is bringing more in in revenue than it is spending - seven times in the last 50 years, most recently in 2001

'Realistic'

Mr Cameron said returning to surplus was a "perfectly realistic" goal and although it would require tough decisions for the next six or seven years it did not "necessarily mean" more cuts on top of those already announced up to 2016.

Start Quote

The other parties are going to have to answer this question, 'do you think it's right to have a surplus? I do”

End Quote David Cameron

"Would you want a government that is not targeting a surplus in the next Parliament, that just said no, we're going to run overdrafts all the way through the next parliament," he told BBC political editor Nick Robinson.

"I don't think that would be responsible. So the other parties are going to have to answer this question, 'Do you think it's right to have a surplus?' I do."

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that if tax rises are ruled out and the government wants to continue to protect the NHS and the schools budget in England from cuts, it will have to make substantial reductions elsewhere.

While the party had yet to set out detailed spending plans after 2016, Mr Cameron said it could turn out that total spending was frozen between 2015 and 2020 and there was scope for increased budgets in some areas.

"Over the whole of the next parliament, it's early days but it could mean a real-terms freeze in public spending, so not a cut but a freeze," he said.

"If the economy continues to grow, if tax revenues increase and if unemployment falls, there would be money to spend on other departments. But I'm not arguing this is an easy choice. It's a difficult choice."

GP hours

Mr Cameron, who will close the conference with his leader's speech on Wednesday, said it had been shown that the quality of public services could be maintained even when budgets fall.

"Here we've cut police budgets by 20% but crime has fallen and policing is very visible.

"So I don't accept we should measure how effective government is by how much money it spends. We should measure government by what results it gets."

Labour says the government has backtracked on its pledge to eliminate the structural deficit by 2015-6 and would be borrowing billions more than originally envisaged over the lifetime of the current Parliament.

Speaking at a Conservative conference fringe meeting, cabinet minister Ken Clarke warned against appearing over-confident, saying: "The problem is so far, of course, every minister realises and every Conservative realises, that the ordinary member of the public isn't feeling much benefits from this.

"We are obviously vulnerable to arguments that yes it is fine we have these improving economic statistics - we have economic growth, unemployment is falling and all that - but the ordinary man is perfectly entitled to say 'there isn't much of that down here'."

Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Cameron said he wanted to offer more patients the chance to visit a GP in the evening or at weekends to "fit in with work and family life".

Under a scheme to be piloted in nine areas of England, surgeries will be able to bid for funding to open from 8am to 8pm seven days a week.

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