IMF warns that Osborne may need to delay cuts

UK should consider slowing "planned adjustment" if growth continues to disappoint, says the IMF.

It's only Tuesday but this has already been a bad week for George Osborne. Yesterday it emerged that the structural deficit could be £12bn higher-than-expected, now the IMF, hitherto a strong supporter of the Chancellor's economic strategy, has slashed its growth forecasts for the UK, and has warned that Britain, the US and Germany (all countries where governments can borrow at historically low rates) should "consider delaying some of their planned adjustment" if growth continues to fall short of expectations. In other words, Osborne might well need a "plan B".

Just a month ago, the IMF said that the UK should only consider slowing its deficit reduction plan if it looked as though the economy was headed for a "prolonged period of weak growth, high unemployment and subdued inflation." But now it suggests that weaker-than-expected growth would be justification enough. The consensus, however slowly, is beginning to turn against Osborne and against extreme austerity.

The IMF now predicts that the UK will grow by just 1.1 per cent this year (down from an earlier forecast of 1.5 per cent) and by 1.6 per cent in 2012 (down from 2.3 per cent). If the fund is right, growth will be worse than in 2010 and significantly lower than the OBR's forecast of 1.7 per cent. The IMF has now cut its 2011 UK growth forecast four times in the last year (from 2 per cent, to 1.7 per cent, to 1.5 per cent, to 1.1 per cent). There is every likelihood that it will do so again. The "grey skies" that Vince Cable spoke of yesterday are looking even greyer today.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.