Osborne's £12bn black hole

Without further cuts and tax rises, Osborne will likely miss his pledge to eliminate the structural

As the Lib Dems fight in Birmingham to emphasise their "distinctiveness", it's worth remembering that they and the Tories are at one on the need to stick to George Osborne's deficit reduction strategy. Like Cameron and Osborne, Clegg and Cable argue that the adoption of a "plan B" would trigger a dramatic loss of confidence in Britain and a rise in interest rates. As Clegg told Andrew Marr on Sunday: "Does anyone seriously think that by ripping up the plan to balance the books, that somehow you will create growth by next Tuesday? It is a complete illusion. Actually what you would create is outright market panic, higher interest rates and more unemployment."

The coalition has pledged to meet two fiscal targets by the end of this parliament - the elimination of the structural deficit and a reduced debt-to-GDP ratio. But lower-than-expected growth (as the graph below shows, forecasters have slashed their 2011 growth predictions), reduced tax revenues, and higher-than-expected unemployment means that both goals are in doubt. Osborne was forced to announce an extra £44.5bn of borrowing at the Budget in March and the economic picture has only darkened since.

Average of independent forecasts for 2011

A

Source: Treasury.

Today's FT offers confirmation of the Chancellor's woes. The paper replicated the model of government borrowing used by the OBR and found that the structural deficit (the part of the deficit that remains even after growth returns) is set to be £12bn higher-than-expected. Consequently, without further spending cuts and/or tax rises, it's likely that Osborne will miss his pledge to eliminate the structural deficit by 2014-15, and he may not even meet it in 2015-16. Judging by this prognosis, all thought of a pre-election "giveaway" should be abandoned. Indeed, austerity may well last into the next parliament. The FT notes that plugging the black hole at the next Budget would require the equivalent of raising VAT from 20 per cent to 22.5 per cent. But if I was Osborne I'd be more inclined to adopt a version of Vince Cable's "mansion tax" in addition to other taxes on property and land. Polls show strong public support for new wealth taxes.

Of course, Osborne and his allies will argue that all of this vindicates the government's approach. If even the coalition's austerity measures can't eliminate the structural deficit, how would Labour do? But the opposition, in the person of Ed Balls, will rightly reply that it was Osborne's decision to cut (and tax) too hard and too early, that led to reduced growth and, consequently, a slower pace of deficit reduction. The widening gap in the public finances could turn the fiscal debate on its head - and not a moment too soon.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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John Major's double warning for Theresa May

The former Tory Prime Minister broke his silence with a very loud rebuke. 

A month after the Prime Minister stood in Chatham House to set out plans for free trading, independent Britain, her predecessor John Major took the floor to puncture what he called "cheap rhetoric".

Standing to attention like a weather forecaster, the former Tory Prime Minister warned of political gales ahead that could break up the union, rattle Brexit negotiations and rot the bonds of trust between politicians and the public even further.

Major said that as he had been on the losing side of the referendum, he had kept silent since June:

“This evening I don't wish to argue that the European Union is perfect, plainly it isn't. Nor do I deny the economy has been more tranquil than expected since the decision to leave was taken. 

“But I do observe that we haven't yet left the European Union. And I watch with growing concern  that the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic.”

A seasoned EU negotiator himself, he warned that achieving a trade deal within two years after triggering Article 50 was highly unlikely. Meanwhile, in foreign policy, a UK that abandoned the EU would have to become more dependent on an unpalatable Trumpian United States.

Like Tony Blair, another previous Prime Minister turned Brexit commentator, Major reminded the current occupant of No.10 that 48 per cent of the country voted Remain, and that opinion might “evolve” as the reality of Brexit became clear.

Unlike Blair, he did not call for a second referendum, stressing instead the role of Parliament. But neither did he rule it out.

That was the first warning. 

But it may be Major's second warning that turns out to be the most prescient. Major praised Theresa May's social policy, which he likened to his dream of a “classless society”. He focused his ire instead on those Brexiteers whose promises “are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery”. 

The Prime Minister understood this, he claimed, but at some point in the Brexit negotiations she will have to confront those who wish for total disengagement from Europe.

“Although today they be allies of the Prime Minister, the risk is tomorrow they may not,” he warned.

For these Brexiteers, the outcome of the Article 50 negotiations did not matter, he suggested, because they were already ideologically committed to an uncompromising version of free trade:

“Some of the most committed Brexit supporters wish to have a clean break and trade only under World Trade Organisation rules. This would include tariffs on goods with nothing to help services. This would not be a panacea for the UK  - it would be the worst possible outcome. 

“But to those who wish to see us go back to a deregulated low cost enterprise economy, it is an attractive option, and wholly consistent with their philosophy.”

There was, he argued, a choice to be made about the foundations of the economic model: “We cannot move to a radical enterprise economy without moving away from a welfare state. 

“Such a direction of policy, once understood by the public, would never command support.”

Major's view of Brexit seems to be a slow-motion car crash, but one where zealous free marketeers like Daniel Hannan are screaming “faster, faster”, on speaker phone. At the end of the day, it is the mainstream Tory party that will bear the brunt of the collision. 

Asked at the end of his speech whether he, like Margaret Thatcher during his premiership, was being a backseat driver, he cracked a smile. 

“I would have been very happy for Margaret to make one speech every eight months,” he said. As for today? No doubt Theresa May will be pleased to hear he is planning another speech on Scotland soon. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.