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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.