Osborne set to miss deficit targets

Sluggish growth means that total borrowing will still be 3.6 per cent in 2015-16.

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.

It notes:

"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.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Liam Fox as International Trade Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for International Trade.

Only Nixon, it is said, could have gone to China. Only a politician with the impeccable Commie-bashing credentials of the 37th President had the political capital necessary to strike a deal with the People’s Republic of China.

Theresa May’s great hope is that only Liam Fox, the newly-installed Secretary of State for International Trade, has the Euro-bashing credentials to break the news to the Brexiteers that a deal between a post-Leave United Kingdom and China might be somewhat harder to negotiate than Vote Leave suggested.

The biggest item on the agenda: striking a deal that allows Britain to stay in the single market. Elsewhere, Fox should use his political capital with the Conservative right to wait longer to sign deals than a Remainer would have to, to avoid the United Kingdom being caught in a series of bad deals. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.