Who is left defending George Osborne?

The economists have deserted him, and business leaders are nowhere to be heard.

So far, we have heard from 13 of the 20 economists who signed the now-infamous letter to George Osborne in the Sunday Times in February 2010, in which they argued that:

[The] government's goal should be to eliminate the structural current Budget deficit over the course of a parliament.

Eleven of the economists responded to the New Statesman's request for a comment, two and a half years on. Of those, nine admitted that the changed situation had caused them to change their minds; one, Albert Marcet of Spain, remained supportive of Osborne; and the eleventh, Oxford's John Vickers, declined to comment either way.

Since then, two further signatories have got in touch with the Daily Telegraph to confirm that they, too, remain supportive. But what of the other seven? Will they admit they got it wrong; stake their colours ever firmer to a dying idea; or take the cowards' way out? We are still waiting to hear from:

  • Sir Howard Davies, then of the London School of Economics, now working for France's Science Po
  • Meghnad Desai, formerly of the London School of Economics
  • Andrew Turnbull, former Cabinet Secretary
  • Orazio Attanasio of University College London
  • John Muellbauer of Nuffield College, Oxford
  • Thomas Sargent of New York University, joint winner of 2011 Nobel prize in economics
  • Anne Sibert of Birkbeck College

The economists aren't the only letter writers who should be embarrassed of their record. What about the 35 businesspeople who signed, corralled by CCHQ, their own letter in October 2010, to the Telegraph, which began:

It has been suggested that the deficit reduction programme set out by George Osborne in his emergency Budget should be watered down and spread over more than one parliament. We believe that this would be a mistake.

This letter was signed by the 34 men and one woman in their personal capacities, but some of them have surely been hit hard by the collapse in confidence which has ensued in the last two years. Andy Bond, ASDA's former chairman, can't be too happy about the impact the weak economy has had on his old company's sales growth, for instance.

Of course, some are unlikely to recant no matter what the evidence. Party-funding transparency website Search the Money reveals that five of the 35 are donors to the Tories, with donations totalling over half a million pounds between them.

Will any of the business leaders recant? The full list, including positions in 2010, is below. The New Statesman awaits their response.

  • Will Adderley, CEO, Dunelm Group
  • Robert Bensoussan, Chairman, L.K. Bennett
  • Andy Bond, Chairman, ASDA
  • Ian Cheshire, Chief Executive, Kingfisher
  • Gerald Corbett, Chairman, SSL International,, Britvic
  • Peter Cullum, Executive Chairman, Towergate
  • Tej Dhillon, Chairman and CEO, Dhillon Group
  • Philip Dilley, Chairman, Arup
  • Charles Dunstone, Chairman, Carphone Warehouse Group, Chairman, TalkTalk Telecom Group
  • Warren East, CEO, ARM Holdings
  • Gordon Frazer, Managing Director, Microsoft UK
  • Sir Christopher Gent, Non-Executive Chairman, GlaxoSmithKline
  • Ben Gordon, Chief Executive, Mothercare
  • Anthony Habgood, Chairman, Whitbread , Chairman, Reed Elsevier
  • Aidan Heavey, Chief Executive, Tullow Oil
  • Neil Johnson, Chairman, UMECO
  • Nick Leslau, Chairman, Prestbury Group
  • Ian Livingston, CEO, BT Group
  • Ruby McGregor-Smith, CEO, MITIE Group
  • Rick Medlock, CFO, Inmarsat; Non-Executive Director, The Betting Group
  • John Nelson, Chairman, Hammerson
  • Stefano Pessina, Executive Chairman, Alliance Boots
  • Nick Prest, Chairman, AVEVA
  • Nick Robertson, CEO, ASOS
  • Sir Stuart Rose, Chairman, Marks & Spencer
  • Tim Steiner, CEO, Ocado
  • Andrew Sukawaty, Chairman and CEO, Inmarsat
  • Michael Turner, Executive Chairman, Fuller, Smith and Turner
  • Moni Varma,Chairman,Veetee
  • Paul Walker, Chief Executive, Sage
  • Paul Walsh, Chief Executive, Diageo
  • Robert Walters, CEO, Robert Walters
  • Joseph Wan, Chief Executive, Harvey Nichols
  • Bob Wigley, Chairman, Expansys, Stonehaven Associates, Yell Group
  • Simon Wolfson, Chief Executive, Next

Read David Blanchflower's most recent column for the New Statesman, "Perhaps Iain Duncan Smith will accuse me of peeing on the data", here

Lord Wolfson, one of Osborne's defenders. Photograph: Getty Images

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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.