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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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.