Is Osborne borrowing more or less?

The Chancellor is set to borrow more than Gordon Brown planned.

Is George Osborne borrowing more or less? You won't find a simple answer in today's papers. The Guardian reports that "Britain will borrow £21.5bn less than previously forecast" but the FT warns that "the black hole in UK public finances has increased by almost £30bn." Elsewhere, Reuters reports that the Office for Budget Responsibility's forecasts are expected to show a "borrowing overshoot of at least 86 billion pounds over four years." Who's right? The answer is that they all are.

In his autumn statement, at 12:30pm, Osborne will announce that Britain's record low bond yields have saved the taxpayer £21.5bn, the so-called "safe haven dividend". Money that would have been spent on financing the national debt can now be spent on enterprise schemes, free childcare, business tax breaks and so on.

But unfortunately for the Chancellor, that's not the end of story. Owing to lower growth and higher unemployment (which leads to a larger welfare bill), public sector net borrowing is expected to be around £86bn higher (the Reuters figure) than forecast at the time of the Budget in March. Even before today, Osborne was forecast to borrow £46bn more than expected. When the OBR publishes its latest forecasts today, that figure could rise to an enormous £132bn (£46bn + £86bn), taking Osborne's total borrowing over that planned by Alistair Darling. The Brown government was forecast to borrow £127bn in 2011-12 and £106bn in 2012-13. Osborne is expected to borrow £129bn ths year (up from £122bn) and £117bn next year (up from £101bn). Labour's smart attack line is that while the Chancellor is borrowing to meet the cost of high unemployment, it would have borrowed to fund growth.

Then there's the structural deficit, the "black hole" the FT refers to. The structural deficit - the part of the deficit that remains even after growth returns - is now forecast to be £30bn bigger. This is because the output gap - the difference between actual and potential growth - is smaller than previously thought. In other words, the economy is capable of less growth than initially forecast. This can't be blamed on Osborne's policies and, worryingly for messrs Balls and Miliband, has implications for Labour's own deficit reduction plan. It also means that the Chancellor is almost certain to miss his self-imposed target of eliminating the structural deficit before the next election. However, he is still likely to meet his formal fiscal mandate - to eliminate the structural deficit over a rolling five-year period. For example, from today, he has until 2016-17 to eliminate the deficit, from next year, he'll have until 2017-18. But meeting this target means extending austerity into the next parliament. A structural deficit can only be eliminated by spending cuts and tax rises, so Osborne will go into the next election warning of further pain to come.

The Chancellor's pledge to eliminate the structural deficit in one parliament was based on a political timetable, not an economic one. By 2015, Osborne envisaged that the Tories would be able to boast that they had cleaned up "the mess" left by Labour - a powerful political narrative - and offer cuts in personal taxation. But, as the grim figures above show, this is now a distant dream.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.