The Chancellor should admit in his statement that his rules were misconceived from the start

Autumn Statement wishlist.

Unless he can find some dodge to circumvent them, George Osborne’s fiscal rules are likely to require him to tighten policy in the autumn statement through some combination of spending cuts (such as freezing welfare payments) and tax increases. At a time when the economic recovery is so weak and economists are speculating about the possibility of a ‘triple-dip’ recession this would be folly.

The Chancellor should admit in his statement that his rules were misconceived from the start. The first is, in theory, no constraint at all because it only requires him to forecast that the deficit will be eliminated in five years time, not to ever actually eliminate it. But in practice, he interprets the rule as forcing him to take action now in order to demonstrate he is still on track to achieve his five-year target. The second rule – that debt should be falling by 2015-16 – is a bigger problem; it can only be achieved by more tax increases or spending cuts.

George Osborne should adopt a new rule specifying that the scale of spending cuts will vary according to the strength of the economy. When growth is weak, spending cuts should be scaled back; when it is strong, they should be speeded up. This would increase the credibility of fiscal policy and allow the Chancellor to relax policy in the autumn statement. This should be done through what is clearly a one-off boost to spending, and the best way to do that is by providing additional resources for infrastructure spending in 2013-14.

Tony Dolphin is from the Institute of Public Policy Research

When growth is weak, spending cuts should be scaled back. Photograph: Getty Images

Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.