What are Osborne's choices now?

The Chancellor can do what’s best for the economy or retain the support of the Tory party faithful. He cannot do both.

The original game plan for the Conservative-led coalition was fairly simple: to eliminate the structural deficit it had inherited within the five-year parliament and ride the global recovery back to economic growth. With that achieved, the Tories’ reputation for economic competence would be restored, promises to end austerity could be made, and a thumping Conservative majority in 2015 would be the just reward. Unfortunately that proved to be one of many over-optimistic projections.

With the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats now trailing Labour in opinion polls, George Osborne appears to face a difficult balancing act between nurturing a pallid economic recovery, maintaining the UK’s AAA credit rating, broadening support for the coalition’s policies, and cementing the loyalty of the Tory party faithful. It seems unlikely that all of these objectives can be achieved simultaneously.

Broadly speaking, the chancellor has three options. First, he could slow the pace of fiscal consolidation over and above simply allowing the "automatic stabilisers" to work, reducing the fiscal drag on the economy. Yet, 90 per cent of those who support the government believe the pace of tightening is about right, or could even be accelerated. With the coalition's austerity programme not even halfway complete, reversing course now would be an admission of failure, a sure-fire way of losing yet more support in the run-up to the 2015 general election.

Alternatively, the Chancellor could maintain the current timetable of austerity but look to spread the pain more broadly across society. Economically, this could make sense. ASR’s UK Household Finances Survey clearly illustrates that those on lower incomes are most insecure in their jobs and are experiencing the most significant financial pressures; shifting more of the burden onto those with broader shoulders could help to free up disposable income and support consumer spending. But again, this issue polarises opinion.

Finally, the Chancellor could look to stay the course and stick with the current strategy. This is not as simple as it sounds. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out, another £27bn of cuts will need to be specified if the Chancellor is to meet his fiscal envelope. Assuming the coalition endorses the opinions advanced in the Household Finances Survey and maintains the sacrosanctity of the NHS and education, this would leave other departments facing unprecedented cuts of 16 per cent in real-terms during the three years to 2017-18 – areas such as the police, defence and transport. Such cuts look unviable and would prove unpopular. In other words, maintaining the status quo is a false option; the Chancellor will have to either inflict further pain on some segments of society or abandon his remaining fiscal targets before the next election in 2015.

Is there a third way? A boost to public investment notionally financed through the private sector seems like a possible method of fiscal support. This would achieve the multiple aims of supporting growth in the near-term, enhancing the supply-side of the economy and keeping debt off the public sector’s balance sheet. Already, the government plans to guarantee £40bn of loans to finance infrastructure projects, with projects worth £10bn already under consideration. Similar schemes, such as privately-contracted road pricing schemes, might also be considered.

Otherwise, this leaves the British government looking like Mr Micawber, simply hoping that "something will turn up". There are two potential saviours. The government could lean on the Bank of England further, adapting its mandate to provide additional monetary support above and beyond that consistent with its inflation target. At the very least, further rounds of Quantitative Easing look likely. Alternatively, the rest of the world could come to the UK's rescue. A global recovery – particularly one that spreads to the eurozone – would provide a source of demand where currently there is none. Ironically, the UK public’s growing hostility towards the EU comes at a time when it needs Europe more than ever.

Dominic White is chief European economist and Richard Mylles is a political risk analyst at Absolute Strategy Research

Chancellor George Osborne leaves Number 11 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

Dominic White is chief European economist and Richard Mylles is a political risk analyst at Absolute Strategy Research

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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