Would a pigeon be a better chancellor than George Osborne?

Ten chances to change course, ten chances blown.

Earlier today, somewhat facetiously, I wrote:

It's weird to know – like, be absolutely certain – that I would be a better chancellor than Osborne.

The point of that is not, by any means, to claim extraordinary economic competency for myself. It is rather that at every possible moment, George Osborne has been presented with two options – hold the course, or switch to Plan B/A-/whatever – and picked the exact wrong one.

Let's look at the constraints Osborne has. It would be weird for him to just change policy out of nowhere, so it has to be in reaction to some event, or at a time when such a change would be expected. Since the emergency budget in June 2010, when the bulk of the Government's policy was laid out, he has had two budgets, two autumn statements, and an emergency spending review, at all of which he could have changed course (which, for the avoidance of doubt, would be switching from austerity). Five blown opportunities there.

But there have also been five negative quarters since Osborne took charge – Q4 2010, Q2 & Q4 2011, and Q1 & Q2. Each one of those will have been a wake-up-call that not everything was going to plan. Yes, even the ones blamed on the snow.

So that's ten opportunities to pick the right course. If you tossed a coin, rolled a die, or asked a pigeon to peck at two keys marked "plan a" and "plan b" in exchange for kernels of corn, you would have expected it to pick the right option five times. The chance of picking the wrong one all ten times in a row, like Osborne did, is just 0.1 per cent. 

So 99.9 times out of one hundred, our hungry avian chancellor would have led to a stronger British economy than our actual one. Although to be fair, the pigeon wouldn't look as good in white tie.

Man vs pigeon: who ever wins, we lose.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.