Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read pieces from this morning’s papers.

1. We've avoided a Libyan Srebrenica, so when is the bombing going to stop? (Guardian)

When there was a clear and present danger, intervention was the right thing to do, writes Jonathan Freedland. But the threat is receding.

2. Mandela and Miliband. Spot the difference (Times) (£)

It was offensive and absurd for the Labour leader to compare the anti-cuts march to the struggles against apartheid or for civil rights, argues Daniel Finkelstein

3. Surgical financial strikes can oust Gaddafi (Financial Times)

Cash rewards could win over regime loyalists, writes Patrick Cronin.

4. The Fukushima effect, globally, will be colossal (Independent)

Hardly any new nuclear power stations will be approved in the next 20 years, says Hamish McRae.

5. Dodgy David Cameron steals from the poor to give to the rich (Daily Mirror)

The PM's fixation with abolishing the 50p tax rate exposes his true priorities, says Kevin Maguire.

6. Ed Miliband wrecks his reputation by siding with the criminal class (Daily Telegraph)

Unlike most of his parliamentary party, the Labour leader doesn't realise that capitalism and freedom have won, writes Simon Heffer.

7. Britain's universities must now declare their independence (Guardian)

Higher education should kick its addiction to state cash and call the coalition's bluff, argues Simon Jenkins.

8. Mogul's hidden hand keeps its grip on power (Independent)

The formation of the coalition should have been a huge setback to News International, writes Lance Price.

9. Earning a good reputation in business (Financial Times)

We can tackle bribery without hitting growth, writes Kenneth Clarke.

10. German elections: Green shoots (Guardian)

The German government faces a period of weakness at a time when Europe needs German strength, says a Guardian leader.

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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.