In his "emergency Budget" in June 2010, Osborne declared that "unless we deal with our debts there will be no growth". But as all Keynesians know, the reverse is true. Unless you stimulate growth, you can't deal with your debts. According to the latest independent forecasts, Osborne will be forced to borrow £174.9bn more than originally planned from 2012-16, a figure that is only likely to rise as growth remains anaemic or non-existent.
Indeed, so bad is the fiscal situation, that, as today's Times reports (£), Osborne is preparing to announce the abandonment of his golden debt rule in the Autumn Statement on 5 December. The rule, which forms the second part of his "fiscal mandate" (the first relates to the structural deficit, which the Chancellor aims to eliminate over a rolling five-year period), is designed to "ensure that debt is falling as a share of GDP by 2015-16". Based on the most recent set of forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, published at the time of the Budget, debt will decline from 76.3 per cent in 2014-15 before dropping to 76 per cent in 2015-16. But since then, the economy has fallen back into recession, with borrowing already up by more than a quarter on last year. As a result, independent forecasters now say that Osborne will miss his target. The IMF, for instance, has forecast that debt will rise from 78.8 per cent of GDP in 2014-15 to 79.9 per cent in 2015-16.
In response, the Chancellor could, of course, announce billions more in tax rises and spending cuts. But that would only further reduce growth, meaning that he might miss his target anyway, and would hardly endear him to voters already bruised by austerity. Thus, as the Times reports, Osborne, with David Cameron's agreement, "is ready to take a political hit on missing the target rather than face the "nightmare" of further cuts."
For the Chancellor, the consequences could be grim. The abandonment of the debt rule would dismay his party's fiscal conservatives, and could trigger the loss of the UK's AAA credit rating, the metric by which he has set such stock. But it could also offer Osborne one final chance to redeem himself. Once he accepts that debt reduction should not be prioritised over growth, the menu of policy options expands accordingly. Indeed, a well-sourced leader (£) in yesterday's Times suggested that the Chancellor was even considering a small stimulus. And why not? With the UK able to borrow at the lowest interest rates for 300 years, it is only Osborne's political pride that has prevented a change of course thus far. Even the IMF has said that a reduced pace of deficit reduction would not lead to a rise in UK bond yields. Freed from his fiscal straitjacket, Osborne would finally be liberated to pursue a policy that works.