Whatever voting system the next election is fought under, the result is likely to be determined by the state of the economy. With this in mind, the latest forecasts don't give George Osborne much cause for optimism. The April review from the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) suggests that growth will be significantly lower than expected and that, as a result, Osborne will miss his target to balance the structural deficit by 2015-16 (the OBR expects a surplus of 0.8 per cent). The NIESR predicts that total borrowing will be 3.6 per cent of GDP in 2015-16, well above the OBR forecast of 1.5 per cent.
"The weak recovery will feed through to lower tax revenues. That will mean that even if the spending plans are met over the next four years, public sector net borrowing will fall only to 3.6 per cent of GDP in 2015-16 rather than the 1.5 per cent projected by the Office for Budget Responsibility. Likewise, the current budget will then run a deficit of 2.2 per cent of GDP compared with the OBR's surplus of 0.2 per cent. We do not expect the government to meet its target to balance the cyclically-adjusted current budget by 2015-16."
As Osborne's critics have persistently warned, anaemic growth means a slower pace of deficit reduction. At the Budget, the OBR downgraded its growth forecast for 2011 to 1.7 per cent (down from 2.1 per cent in November, 2.3 per cent following the Emergency Budget and 2.6 per cent in June), but the NIESR is predicting growth of just 1.4 per cent for this year. Given that the economy grew by just 0.5 per cent in the first quarter of this year, significantly below the official forecast of 0.8 per cent, the smart money is on the OBR having to downgrade its growth forecast for the fourth time.
The political upshot of all this is that Osborne will have less room to fund a pre-election giveaway in 2015. The Chancellor pushed hard for a five-year term during the coalition negotiations in the belief that this would leave the economy with enough time to recover from his austerity measures. But it looks like his gamble may not pay off.