Public sector borrowing on course to overshoot OBR projections by £11bn

ONS reports a stronger January than last year, but the trend remains poor.

The ONS has released the public sector finances for January 2013, showing that the government ran a surplus of £11.4bn in the month, £5bn higher than in January 2012.

But as Nida Ali, economic advisor to the Ernst & Young ITEM Club, comments, the good news is largely a mirage:

Today’s figures demonstrate the problems caused by all of the statistical fudges of the past couple of years – the various transfers from the Bank of England, Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley make it virtually impossible to decipher the underlying trend.

Although January’s headline number looks encouraging, it appears that the state of the public finances is worse than the government and the OBR had hoped for. Stripping out the one-off factors, net borrowing in the financial year-to-date is £7.5bn higher than last year. With just two months of data pending and last year’s deficit having been revised down, there is virtually no chance of borrowing being lower on a like-for-like basis in 2012/13 than in 2011/12.

Furthermore, the ONS has put a ceiling of £9.1bn on the amount of cash that can be transferred from the Central Bank to the government in 2012/13. Given that this also includes the payment from the Special Liquidity Scheme, it means that the reduction in borrowing caused by the transfers from the Bank of England’s Asset Purchase Facility will be £5bn less than the OBR had forecast.

However, even accounting for this setback and the lower than expected 4G proceeds, the government was still on course to miss the OBR’s 2012/13 borrowing forecast by a distance. Assuming that borrowing in the final two months of the financial year is the same as it was last year, the government is on course to overshoot the OBR’s 2012/13 forecast of £80.5bn by almost £11bn.

An £11bn overshoot even of the OBR's already depreciated forecast will be bad news indeed for the Chancellor. But the deficit is, at least, on course to be lower than it was last year; and January itself was strong, as the chart below shows:

Cumulative public sector net borrowing by month, excluding the temporary effects of financial interventions

Good news this month, then — but it only highlights how bad the news has been for the rest of the year.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.