Osborne to borrow more than Labour was projected to

Chancellor forecast to borrow £19bn more than the Brown government was expected to.

George Osborne rattled through the OBR's borrowing forecasts in his autumn statement - and with good reason. They show that, as a result of lower growth and higher unemployment, he will be forced to borrow £158bn more than forecast a year ago. Even more strikingly, Osborne is now set to borrow £19bn more than Labour was projected to (see Table 4.5 on p. 38 of the OBR's June 2010 release). With glorious irony, the national debt will now be higher under the coalition (78 per cent of GDP in 2014-15) than it would have been under Labour (74 per cent of GDP).

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Labour's smart line of attack is that while Osborne is borrowing to meet the cost of unemployment, they would have borrowed to fund growth.

It's true that external factors may well have forced a Labour chancellor to borrow more than forecast but here's the question Osborne and his allies will have to answer: why aren't the bond markets panicking? They claimed that borrowing a billion more than planned would take Britain to the "brink of bankruptcy". But the fact that Osborne is set to borrow a huge £158bn more than forecast in November 2010 shows this up as the myth it always was.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What price would the UK pay to stop Brexit?

The EU could end Britain's budget rebate and demand that we join the euro and the Schengen zone.

Among any group of Remain politicians, discussion soon turns to the likelihood of stopping Brexit. After Theresa May's electoral humbling, and the troubled start to the negotiations, those who oppose EU withdrawal are increasingly optimistic.

“I’m beginning to think that Brexit may never happen,” Vince Cable, the new Liberal Democrat leader, said recently. A growing number, including those who refuse to comment publicly, are of the same view. 

But conversation rarely progresses to the potential consequences of halting Brexit. The assumption that the UK could simply retain the status quo is an unsafe one. Much hinges on whether Article 50 is unilaterally revocable (a matter Britain might have been wise to resolve before triggering withdrawal.) Should the UK require the approval of the EU27 to halt Brexit (as some lawyers believe), or be forced to reapply for membership, Brussels would extract a price. 

Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, recently echoed French president Emmanuel Macron's declaration that “there is always a chance to reopen the door”. But he added: “Like Alice in Wonderland, not all the doors are the same. It will be a brand new door, with a new Europe, a Europe without rebates, without complexity, with real powers and with unity.”

The UK's £5bn budget rebate, achieved by Margaret Thatcher in 1984, has long been in the EU's sights. A demand to halt Brexit would provide the perfect pretext for its removal. 

As Verhofstadt's reference to “unity” implied, the UK's current opt-outs would also be threatened. At present, Britain (like Denmark) enjoys the right to retain its own currency and (like Ireland) an exemption from the passport-free Schengen travel zone. Were the UK to reapply for membership under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty, it would be automatically required to join the euro and to open its borders.

During last year's Labour leadership election, Owen Smith was candid enough to admit as much. “Potentially,” he replied when asked whether he would accept membership of the euro and the Schengen zone as the price of continued EU membership (a stance that would not have served Labour well in the general election.)

But despite the daily discussion of thwarting Brexit, politicians are rarely confronted by such trade-offs. Remaining within or rejoining the EU, like leaving, is not a cost-free option (though it may be the best available.) Until anti-Brexiteers acknowledge as much, they are vulnerable to the very charge they level at their opponents: that they inhabit a fantasy world. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.