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.

Photo: Getty
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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.