This was no Autumn Statement for growth

The measures announced today by Osborne will increase output by a meagre 0.1 per cent.

Today’s Autumn Statement was a strange creature. The Chancellor has gone to great lengths to implement a bunch of expensive supply side measures to help the economy grow. But at the same time, the Office for Budget Responsibility appears to have gone in the opposite direction, suggesting that it’s the demand side, not the supply side of the economy that is where the problem lies. That would imply a rather different set of measures to the ones we saw today.

In the run-up to today, the government set a few hares running about how it was going to reallocate current to capital spending to boost growth. Since capital spending tends to raise economic output by more than current spending, building schools and roads could provide a sorely needed boost to the stagnant economy. Just what the doctor ordered. And such a shift was exactly the sort of thing the Social Market Foundation advocated last February as a way to provide a fiscal stimulus without deviating from the Chancellor’s deficit reduction plan.

In the event, the investment is a pretty paltry £2.3bn next year and £3bn after that. On its own, that might boost output by about the same amount: a piddling 0.1 per cent of GDP in each year. Unfortunately, even this microscopic growth measure is all but cancelled out by where the funds have been raised from. The decision to uprate benefits by just 1 per cent for three years will suck demand out of the economy from next April, all but off-setting any stimulus effect of the investment plan. Quite apart from the fairness debate, if you need to save money from the welfare bill, it would have been far wiser to wait until the economy is back on its feet.

By contrast, one bright spot – and it was only a spot – was the decision to raise £600m from limiting pension tax relief for top earners. Cutting spending on measures that encourage people to take money out of the economy is an excellent example of a demand-friendly cut. Well done the Lib Dems. They should have done more.

Unsurprisingly, then, for all the infrastructure investment chat, the OBR estimates that the measures in the Autumn Statement will increase output by a meagre 0.1 per cent. This was no ‘Autumn Statement for growth’, whatever the rhetoric.

What this statement was really about was supply side measures, and here the Chancellor has really pulled out the stops. Raising the personal allowance and capping fare rises will make work pay more for the middle classes. Eroding benefits will sharpen work incentives by making life more uncomfortable for those out of work or on low wages. The populist fuel-duty give-away will cut the costs for firms and families. And the corporation tax cut will marginally encourage investment. But it is very unlikely that these measures will do anything to stimulate growth, in the short-term at least.

And here the OBR seems to be saying that the Chancellor has misdiagnosed the problem. Last month the SMF replicated the OBR’s models for estimating how much of the current deficit will remain once the economy gets back to normal. Had the OBR stuck to its models, they would have said that the demand shortfall in the economy was relatively minimal. In that world, supply side policies might make some sense. But today, the OBR junked its models wholesale, adopting a totally different technique. Now they’re saying that the economy is suffering from a large and increasingly persistent shortfall in demand.

The biggest threat to the supply side of the UK economy is from a yawning output gap. Weak demand means that unemployed workers will slip into permanent inactivity, while capital will depreciate. Incentives to invest will remain weak, and banks will see no advantage to calling time on their zombie company clients. This is all very bad news for our future prosperity and our society. But action on demand from the Chancellor has been entirely rhetorical today. Frenetic activity on the supply side looks like fiddling while Rome burns.

Chancellor George Osborne delivers his Autumn Statement in the House of Commons. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ian Mulheirn is the director of the Social Market Foundation.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.