Darling's Big Mini-Budget

The quiet man gets the tone right for the statement of his political career

Prime Minister's Questions has been increasing in volume recently, making me think that parliament is already in election mode.

But even the most hostile recent Brown-Cameron exchanges were as nothing compared to the atmosphere surrounding this afternoon's pre-Budget report.

Alistair Darling began very low-key, almost sotto voce to early chortles about his claims that the government was "living within our means".

But the jeers began in earnest as the chancellor stated that the present crisis began in the US housing market.

Somehow such conduct felt inappropriate here. Vince Cable later described the situation as a national emergency and he is right. His party leader, Nick Clegg, sat through the proceedings in respectful silence, as did his Liberal Democrat colleagues - respectful not of the government, but of the gravity of the situation.

David Cameron would have done well to order his backbenchers to sit through the statement in silence. Such an approach would have spooked the government and, in the end, the chancellor drove them into submission with his relentless, quiet monotone anyway.

This was an assured performance from Darling, who appears to be genuinely unflappable in what he can now say is an "unprecedented global crisis" without being accused of talking down the economy. Indeed, such was the hyperbole flying around the house that this seemed like something of an understatement.

Darling won the battle with Downing Street to be honest about the fact that a fiscal stimulus now would have to be paid for later. This didn't stop George Osborne from punishing him for his frank approach, but it rather spiked his guns.

The chants from the Labour backbenches of "What would you do?" seemed to unsettle the shadow chancellor.

It was striking that Darling's economic forecasts were so optimistic: 1.5-2 per cent growth to return as early as 2010. I do hope he's right. There's clearly no point whatsoever in putting a set of emergency measures in place if you don't think they will work.

George Osborne said this marked the greatest failure of public policy in a generation. Like Margaret Thatcher before him, his voice has lowered a register and his righteous fury was at times impressive. At key moments, however, his voice cracked including when he described plans to increase National Insurance as "not just a tax bombshell but a precision guided missile".

Osborne's attack went down well with the Tory backbenchers, but it did not wound his opponent, who was able to engage what now must be Labour election narrative: where the government acted the Tories would have done nothing. "What would you do, George?" is a slogan of some resonance.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR