Will the Lib Dems cave in to Osborne over deeper cuts?

Ahead of the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor is considering even larger cuts in order to meet his debt target.

One of the biggest dilemmas facing George Osborne ahead of the Autumn Statement on 5 December is whether or not to abandon his pledge to have the national debt falling as as a percentage of GDP by 2015-16. Economic growth of just 0.6 per cent over the last two years has left the government on course to borrow around £190bn more than originally intended. In March, the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that debt would fall from 76.3 per cent in 2014-15 to 76 per cent in 2015-16 (thus meeting Osborne's target), but the IMF has more recently predicted that it will rise from 78.8 per cent to 79.8 per cent.

With this in mind, the government briefed in September that it would abandon the target. The Times (£) reported that Osborne, with David Cameron's agreement, was "ready to take a political hit on missing the target rather than face the 'nightmare' of further cuts."

But better-than-expected growth and borrowing figures have prompted a rethink, with Osborne now considering whether he could still meet the target by announcing even deeper spending cuts. In today's Telegraph, Peter Oborne writes that the Chancellor "wants to stick to his original economic strategy – a position he outlined eloquently during his speech to the Conservative Party Conference." The biggest obstacle to him doing so is the Lib Dems. Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have repeatedly said that they will not accept a "penny more" off public spending (or "a penny less"). Osborne could have attempted to win his coalition partners round by offering them some form of wealth tax, but he has already ruled out a "mansion tax" and rejected Clegg's call for an emergency tax on the rich.

It remains to be seen how the stalemate will be broken. As Oborne writes, "Osborne has nowhere to hide. Either he must give in to the Lib Dems, or the Lib Dems must give in to him." Should the Lib Dems blink first, it would be one of their biggest betrayals yet.

Nick Clegg has said that he will not accept a "penny more" off public spending. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.