OBR head rebukes Osborne: the UK was never at risk of bankruptcy

Office for Budget Responsibility chief Robert Chote dismisses the "danger of insolvency".

In the weeks after he took office, George Osborne justified his austerity programme by claiming that Britain was on "the brink of bankruptcy". He told the Conservative conference in October 2010: "The good news is that we are in government after 13 years of a disastrous Labour administration that brought our country to the brink of bankruptcy."

It was, of course, nonsense. With its own currency, its own monetary policy and the ability to borrow at historically low rates, the UK was never at risk of bankruptcy. In extremis, the Bank of England could simply buy up government debt (as it has done through its quantitative easing programme).

So it was pleasing to see the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), Robert Chote, state as much on last night's edition of Newsnight. He told Jeremy Paxman (from 15:17):

In terms of thinking about whether the government's finances are sustainable, a key difference [between the UK and the eurozone] is that we are in a position where we have our own currency and in that sense we have a greater degree of flexibility that means the notion of the danger of insolvency is a much different question for us.

Having established the OBR to act as a check on the government (something for which Osborne deserves praise), the Chancellor might want to listen to its head and finally concede that there was no basis for his claim in 2010.

Office for Budget Responsibility head Robert Chote at the body's briefing on the Autumn Statement yesterday.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.