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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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR