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


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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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.