George Osborne cannot possibly know how long austerity will last

The Chancellor's strategy is based on faulty rules and unproven assumptions about the deficit.

Next week George Osborne will hold forth on the size of the underlying deficit and reveal whether austerity will now extend until at least 2018. When he does, he won’t know what he’s talking about – and he’ll be in good company.  Neither will Ed Balls when he responds, nor will the phalanx of city economists who rush to comment, nor indeed will establishment economic institutions such as the IMF and the OECD.

This isn’t because our current crop of politicians and economists are unusually uninformed. Rather it reflects the fact the debate on fiscal policy is being driven in no small part by an economic concept – the structural deficit - that is very close to being unmeasurable. It’s an example of how what sounds like a sensible idea in theory can go wrong in practice.  

The structural deficit is that bit of the deficit that would still exist even if the economy was running at full capacity: the part that can’t be explained away by the fact that the economy is under-performing.  Giving it consideration is sensible and important. Few would disagree that running a deficit when the economy is stuttering along far below its peak capacity is a very different matter to running one when the economy is booming. The trouble arises, however, when we pretend we can decipher exactly how much of a deficit is cyclical and how much is structural.

Estimating the size of the structural deficit is, to put it mildly, something that sensible people can come to sharply different views on. Last week the Social Market Foundation  think-tank (led by former Treasury official Ian Mulheirn who is no fiscal virgin) published a neat bit of work replicating the methodology used by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to estimate the gap between the economy’s current output and its full potential. They conclude the output gap is pretty modest: under 2%.  If correct, it’s bad news for our economy, as we’ve had a bigger permanent loss in productive capacity than many realise. And it’s bad news for austerity: the return to growth won’t fill the fiscal gap - further painful changes will be needed to meet the objective of eliminating the structural deficit over five years. The SMF estimate that massive extra spending cuts or tax-rises of around £22bn (over and above all of those already planned) would be needed by 2017/18.

Or maybe they won’t be.  Another plausible report – this time by the respected Capital Economics – tells a very different story. It estimates that our flatling economy might be running as much as 6% below its full potential. If that’s the case the structural deficit is far smaller than we are being led to believe – and Osborne may be planning to tighten fiscal policy by too much, way too much – to the tune of around £35bn - in order to meet his own rule.

So that’s all clear then.

In addition to recognising the confusion over the size of the structural deficit it is worth asking whether setting a target that no-one can agree on is likely to result in further economic damage? You’d think so. But the answer depends on whether you believe that the chancellor’s target on eliminating the structural deficit is going to drive new spending and tax decisions that wouldn’t otherwise have been taken.

This question arises because the target is formulated in a way that means, as Jonathan Portes, Director of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, has highlighted, it never actually bites. Because it is set on a rolling timetable all the chancellor ever needs to do is demonstrate he plans to get rid of the structural deficit five years from a given point in time. He doesn’t actually need to achieve these plans. Each year the date at which the target will be met can just be pushed back by another twelve months (as happened in last year’s autumn statement). Promises rather than delivery will suffice.

Now, a target without a fixed date is clearly a flexible thing. But I doubt this makes it irrelevant to real decisions.  Politics and the chancellor’s craving for ‘credibility’ are likely to result in the target affecting the cuts Osborne actually makes in the here and now.  He won’t want his target to become a joke – the mañana target. Say, for instance, Osborne announces next Wednesday that an extra £15bn of consolidation is needed in 2017/18 - will that really have no impact on the real choices made about the next few years? He may well believe it is vital that he demonstrates additional fiscal resolve –by implementing extra cuts, not just making more promises.  

But in deciding on the timing of any new cuts Osborne faces contradictory pressures. On the one hand, he may well want to bolster credibility as well as build up the size of spending reductions by acting quickly, for instance freezing spending now on aspects of welfare in order that savings accumulate over the forthcoming years.

Alternatively, there are strong arguments for thinking he’d want to push cuts down the road (as his target allows him to do). Most obviously this is because the economy is currently so weak only a fool would contemplate further undermining it.  But there is another subtler reason for playing it long. If the chancellor has a hunch that the true output gap is actually larger than the OBR currently believes he may want to defer cuts – particularly those cuts that he doesn’t actually want to make – in the hope that over the next few years the OBR revises its view. If this hunch turned out to be correct, then at some point the OBR would end up announcing that the output gap is larger (and the structural deficit smaller) than they previously thought.

The result? A return to growth would solve more of our fiscal problems than we currently expect and Osborne (or indeed Balls) would be in the happy position of being able to scale back some of the cuts that have been pencilled in.  Of course, things could turn out worse rather than better than current OBR assumptions. No-one knows. But in an uncertain world one thing is clear: the current target on the structural deficit magnifies rather than minimises the confusion.      

Nor should we forget that the structural deficit isn’t the only fiscal rule in a spot of trouble. The chancellor’s second target – the commitment to reduce debt as a share of GDP by 2015 - is likely to be breached next week (unless a Treasury accounting fiddle is used to avert this). Either way, the rule is highly arbitrary. If the debt to GDP ratio falls marginally in 2015 but grows thereafter then the rule would have been met but the public finances wouldn’t be sustainable.    

Osborne’s fiscal regime is in a state of disrepair.  The finest minds in the Treasury are currently chasing two faulty fiscal lodestars: a deficit rule which is impossible to accurately measure, resulting in starkly different estimates with very different implications for policy and politics; and a debt rule which is highly arbitrary and tells us very little about the nation’s longer term fiscal health.     

All of which would lead you to think that there would be a major debate – not least on the centre-left - about alternatives to Osborne’s rules. After all, fiscal policy is the issue of our times and will define the next Parliament as much as it has this one. To be fair there are indeed those setting out new and interesting thoughts on the type of framework that might better ensure fiscal sustainability whilst taking account of the strength of the economy  and without falling foul of either false precision or arbitrariness. For now this conversation is only happening at the margins. In the meantime we are stuck with fiscal rules that aren’t fit for purpose. That’s likely to remain the case regardless of what George Osborne says in the Autumn Statement.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. Source: Getty

Gavin Kelly is a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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.