Osborne will need even-bigger cuts to stick to his plan

The Chancellor must find £48bn in extra spending cuts or tax rises to meet his main deficit target.

The Autumn Statement is now just over three weeks away and a sense of déjà vu hangs over the scene. In the run up to the same event last year it was plain that poor economic performance meant that the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) would be the bearer of bad news for the Chancellor. And so it is again.

After a grotty economic performance in 2011, last year’s Autumn Statement was always going to deliver bad news. The Chancellor announced the need for a £15bn reduction in overall spending by 2016-17 in order to meet the government’s fiscal mandate of eliminating the structural deficit in five years.

But that wasn’t the whole story. Much social security spending is driven by things beyond the government’s control: rising rents push up the housing benefit bill, and retiring baby boomers raise the overall cost of the basic state pension. So to constrain overall spending in the face of a rising benefits bill, the Treasury was implicitly seeking a further £11bn of savings. In total, the plan was then to find some £26bn in spending cuts – since tax rises weren’t part of the plan – by 2016-17 in order to achieve the government’s aims.

Unfortunately, this year things seem depressingly familiar. At the Budget, the OBR predicted that economic growth would be 0.8 per cent this year, but independent forecasters now think it will be more like a 0.3 per cent contraction. As a result, public borrowing is running 10 per cent above the OBR’s March forecast. None of this is great news, but it wouldn’t be so bad if the higher borrowing was a temporary reflection of the weakness in the economy that would resolve itself once things get back to normal. Unfortunately, the Social Market Foundation’s analysis – part of a joint report produced with the RSA yesterday - shows that this doesn’t seem to be the case. At least not according the models the OBR uses.  

Unemployment has been falling for most of this year. While that’s a good news story in itself, it implies that the economy may have moved closer to its capacity. But with less far to bounce back, a bigger chunk of this year’s £122bn underlying annual government borrowing will remain when output finally does reach its full capacity. And the only way to fill that hole is to close the gap between revenue and spending.

Our analysis, using the OBR methodology, suggests that getting the government’s Budget 2012 plans back on track would require a further £22bn of spending cuts or tax rises by 2017-18. The Chancellor has some room to ease up on his plans and still hit his mandate, but whatever way you look at it, the OBR’s models suggest that a lot more fiscal pain is on the way. Combined with the cuts already planned, the total size of the task after 2014 could be £48bn by 2017-18.

If the Chancellor sticks to his plan to keep taxes unchanged and cut £10.5bn from the social security budget, most of the work will be done by cuts in public services. That would require 11 per cent real-terms budget reductions in every department over the first three years of the next parliament. And if health, education and international development spending were to be protected, the impact elsewhere would rise to an eye-watering 23 per cent.

All of this would come on top of the spending squeeze that’s already underway and planned to run until 2015. The consequences of the eight years of cuts would be to decimate spending in some areas, with some departments over 40 per cent smaller once the public finances are back to balance.

It must be hoped that the OBR’s models are wrong in their implications and that the economy is in fact still some distance from its potential level. But if the OBR’s advice follows it past form, the news will be grim, requiring cuts that will run deep into next parliament. Against a background of four years’ unprecedented cuts, a further squeeze on anything like the scale implied by the SMF’s analysis will represent the central issue at the next election, forcing on the electorate stark decisions about the kind of public services we want in the UK.

But we mustn’t have a re-run of the 2010 election, in which the three parties connived in presenting vague plans and disingenuous language to mask the scale of the problem. Osborne made a bold decision in setting up the independent OBR. Perhaps, before the next election he should make another, and require it publicly to adjudicate on the detail and viability of each of the main parties’ plans. If the electorate is to choose, it must be informed.

Ian Mulheirn is director of the Social Market Foundation

George Osborne will deliver the Autumn Statement on 5 December. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ian Mulheirn is the director of the Social Market Foundation.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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