Revealed: how Osborne manipulated the borrowing figures

Chancellor included 4G receipts and gilt interest payments to make it appear as if the deficit will fall this year.

Against expectations, George Osborne announced in his Autumn Statement that borrowing would fall, not rise, this year. The news cheered the Conservative backbenches and clearly surprised Ed Balls, who was jeered by Osborne and David Cameron as he mistakenly said the deficit was "not rising" (he meant to say it was rising). Borrowing so far this year is £5bn (7.4 per cent) higher than in the same period last year - it seemed there was no escape route for the Chancellor.

So how did he do it? Well, turn to p. 12 of the Office for Budget Responsibility document and it becomes clear that Osborne has performed an accounting trick worthy of Enron. First, he added the expected £3.5bn receipts from the 4G mobile spectrum auction - even though it's yet to take place. Second, he included the interest transferred to the Treasury from the Bank of England's Quantitative Easing programme (worth £11.5bn), despite the Institute for Fiscal Studies warning him that it would call into doubt his credibility. Were it not for these two measures, borrowing would be £15bn higher than stated by Osborne. If we add that £15bn to the £108bn figure provided by Osborne, then total forecast borrowing for this year becomes £123bn, £1.4bn higher than last year. Little wonder that the Chancellor was so keen to bag the 4G receipts early.

But while these fiscal somersaults might allow Osborne to claim he's reduced borrowing, what reputation he had for statistical transparency has been destroyed. In his speech to the Commons, the Chancellor boasted that "it is a measure of the constitutional achievement that it is taken for granted that our country’s forecast is now produced independently of the Treasury". That claims looks very questionable today.

George Osborne leaves the Treasury ahead of the Autumn Statement. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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