The OBR's fiscal outlook in five charts

The OBR looked at fiscal sustainability today. Here's what they found.

Forecasting is hard

Page 106, thanks to Ed Conway

I'll admit, I have an idiosyncratic sense of humour. But still, I laughed out loud at this tangle of lines, which shows the OBR's best attempts to forecast oil and gas revenues. It's reminiscent of the woefully optimistic IMF forecasts for Greek GDP, excel that instead of being consistently wrong in the same direction, it's more like a child just scribbled a lot of lines on the chart.

Unfortunately, the oil and gas revenues remain important. Thanks to the long-standing decline in productivity in the sector, a function of the drying-up of North Sea oil fields, it usually imparts a massive downward pressure on the quarterly GDP figures, which means that getting the predictions accurate is crucial for getting the overall figure accurate.

Migration saves us money

Page 147, thanks to Jonathan Portes

If you care about public sector debt, really the absolute best thing you can do is remove restrictions on migration. Migrants are educated by their home country, and frequently retire there too; in the meantime, they work hard, pay their taxes, and have a lower-than-average crime rate.

The "high migration" scenario is of the average net migration being slightly more than double what the ONS uses as its baseline assumption, with 260,000 people coming in on net compared to 140,000. That's a lot more than normal, but it's not outside the realm of political possibility. Just think what a fully open-borders policy could do for the national accounts…

At the other end, the ONS looks at what "zero net migration" would do. Remember that zero net migration is actually the government's explicit policy, so it's already a bit damning that the ONS instead works on the assumption that they will fail to hit it by 140,000 people. But when we look at the stats, it's clear that we should be glad of that. Zero net migration would push the debt:GDP ratio over 100 per cent by 2050.

Young people and old people cost money

Page 78, thanks to Chris Giles

Again, nothing which will blow your mind: the state spends money educating young people, caring for old people, and providing health services to both, while the people in the middle pay the bills. What's interesting are the two crossover points – roughly 23 and 67 years old – where people go from being, on average, a contributor to a benefactor or vice versa, as well as the curious level of the peak of tax contributions, at just under 50.

You are never going to retire

Page 117

The thick line is the OBR's best guess of what changes to the pension age are going to do to the proportion of people between 65 and 74 working: around a 66 per cent increase, to just over a quarter of those people working by 2045. That already comes after a doubling of the rate in the last twenty years:

We are never ever ever getting time off work.

This is all just guesswork

Page 11

Finally, an important reminder that the long-term projections are as vague as can be. In fact, discussing them in terms of fiscal policy is almost nonsensical. What they are instead is predictions of demographic change mapped on to current policy. So if the nation continues ageing as it looks like it will be, and if we fail to do reform the state pension in that time, then the national debt will start rising on current policies in 2037.

Obviously, it's nonsense to act as though all our policies will be the same in 2017, let alone 20 years after that, but it's the only way talk about the future at all.

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

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The Conservative-DUP deal is great news for the DUP, but bad news for Theresa May

The DUP has secured a 10 per cent increase in Northern Ireland's budget in return for propping up the Prime Minister.

Well, that’s that then. Theresa May has reached an accord with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep herself in office. Among the items: the triple lock on pensions will remain in place, and the winter fuel allowance will not be means-tested across the United Kingdom. In addition, the DUP have bagged an extra £1bn of spending for Northern Ireland, which will go on schools, hospitals and roads. That’s more than a five per cent increase in Northern Ireland’s budget, which in 2016-7 was just £9.8bn.

The most politically significant item will be the extension of the military covenant – the government’s agreement to look after veterans of war and their families – to Northern Ireland. Although the price tag is small, extending priority access to healthcare to veterans is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland, where they have served not just overseas but in Northern Ireland itself. Sensitivities about the role of the Armed Forces in the Troubles were why the Labour government of Tony Blair did not include Northern Ireland in the covenant in 2000, when elements of it were first codified.

It gives an opportunity for the SNP…

Gina Miller, whose court judgement successfully forced the government into holding a vote on triggering Article 50, has claimed that an increase in spending in Northern Ireland will automatically entail spending increases in Wales and Scotland thanks to the Barnett formula. This allocates funding for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on spending in England or on GB-wide schemes.

However, this is incorrect. The Barnett formula has no legal force, and, in any case, is calculated using England as a baseline. However, that won’t stop the SNP MPs making political hay with the issue, particularly as “the Vow” – the last minute promise by the three Unionist party leaders during the 2014 independence referendum – promised to codify the formula. They will argue this breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the vow. 

…and Welsh Labour

However, the SNP will have a direct opponent in Wales. The Welsh Labour party has long argued that the Barnett formula, devised in 1978, gives too little to Wales. They will take the accord with Northern Ireland as an opportunity to argue that the formula should be ripped up and renegotiated.

It risks toxifying the Tories further

The DUP’s socially conservative positions, though they put them on the same side as their voters, are anathema to many voters in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the DUP’s positions on abortion and equal marriage will not be brought to bear on rUK, the association could leave a bad taste in the mouth for voters considering a Conservative vote next time. Added to that, the bumper increase in spending in Northern Ireland will make it even harder to win support for continuing cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which is moot if the Conservatives U-Turn on austerity

Of course, all of these problems will fade if the Conservatives further loosen their deficit target, as they did last year. Turning on the spending taps in England, Scotland and Wales is probably their last, best chance of turning around the grim political picture.

It’s a remarkable coup for Arlene Foster

The agreement, which ticks a number of boxes for the DUP, caps off an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster. The significant increase in spending in Northern Ireland – equivalent to the budget of the entirety of the United Kingdom going up by £70bn over two years  – is only the biggest ticket item. The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland appeals to two longstanding aims of the DUP. The first is to end “Northern Ireland exceptionalism” wherever possible, and the second is the red meat to their voters in offering better treatment to veterans.

It feels like a lifetime ago when you remember that in March 2017, Foster was a weakened figure having led the DUP into its worst election result since the creation of the devolved assembly at Stormont.

The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator.

Conservatives are hoping it will be plain sailing for them, and the DUP from now on should take note. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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