The revolt against Osborne grows

Lib Dem MPs join economists in calling for a change of course.

Our exclusive story on how once supportive economists have turned against George Osborne has made the front page of today's Guardian, with the rest of Fleet Street, including the Mail and the Telegraph, also following up the piece, which appears in full in this week's magazine.

The Guardian leads on this week's New Statesman cover story.

And there's more bad news for Osborne today. The FT's Kiran Stacey reports that Lib Dem MPs are also now urging Osborne to take advantage of the UK's record low borrowing rates and stimulate growth through higher capital spending. John Pugh, the co-author of the party's 2010 economic policy, tells the paper:

We need to look again very carefully at the implications of the sharp reduction we have seen in capital expenditure.

There are a fair number of people who think that if we returned to the plans as conceived by Vince Cable . . . we would be in a slightly healthier position than we are.

Pugh is right. Osborne's decision to reduce capital expenditure - the most valuable spending, according to the OBR - by 48% (£24.3bn) is one of the main reasons why the UK, with the exception of Italy, is the only G20 member in recession.

When it was pointed out to Pugh that it would be difficult for the Chancellor to perform such a U-turn, he rightly replied:

The situation is serious enough now for people not to be bothered about what you call the plan.

Two other MPs - Annette Brooke and John Leech - make similar calls, and a senior economic adviser to the party comments: "We may have to resort to emergency measures to stimulate demand. We have already let the timetable on eliminating the deficit slip: we may have to do that again."

Perhaps most significantly, Stacey reports that party president Tim Farron is being urged by the Lib Dem leadership to call for deficit-funded spending "in order to give Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, a mandate to argue for it at the top of government."

The Lib Dems' restlessnes is unsurprising. As even the IMF has stated, there is no evidence that a reduced pace of deficit reduction would trigger a rise in British bond yields. With investors increasingly reluctant to lend to eurozone countries, the UK is, as Osborne has observed, a "safe haven". Yet, for no other reason other than political pride, the Chancellor is unwilling to change direction. Borrowing for growth would be a tacit admission that his nemesis, Ed Balls, was right and he was wrong. But until Osborne is prepared to take this step, there is no prospect of recovery, for either the economy or his party.

George Osborne is under increasing pressure to stimulate growth through higher infrastructure spending. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Scotland's huge deficit is an obstacle to independence

The country's borrowing level (9.5 per cent) is now double that of the UK. 

Ever since Brexit, and indeed before it, the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum has loomed. But today's public spending figures are one reason why the SNP will proceed with caution. They show that Scotland's deficit has risen to £14.8bn (9.5 per cent of GDP) even when a geographic share of North Sea revenue is included. That is more than double the UK's borrowing level, which last year fell from 5 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent. 

The "oil bonus" that nationalists once boasted of has become almost non-existent. North Sea revenue last year fell from £1.8bn to a mere £60m. Total public sector revenue was £400 per person lower than for the UK, while expenditure was £1,200 higher.  

Nicola Sturgeon pre-empted the figures by warning of the cost to the Scottish economy of Brexit (which her government estimated at between £1.7bn and £11.2.bn a year by 2030). But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose considerable austerity. 

Nor would EU membership provide a panacea. Scotland would likely be forced to wait years to join owing to the scepticism of Spain and others facing their own secessionist movements. At present, two-thirds of the country's exports go to the UK, compared to just 15 per cent to other EU states.

The SNP will only demand a second referendum when it is convinced it can win. At present, that is far from certain. Though support for independence rose following the Brexit vote, a recent YouGov survey last month gave the No side a four-point lead (45-40). Until the nationalists enjoy sustained poll leads (as they have never done before), the SNP will avoid rejoining battle. Today's figures are a considerable obstacle to doing so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.