Osborne called out for holding "two Budgets" a year

The Autumn Statement was never meant to become a "second Budget" but Osborne has made it one. And the Treasury Select Committee is right to say so.

It's easy now to forget that George Osborne scrapped the pre-Budget report (introduced by Gordon Brown in 1997) in the belief that major decisions on tax and spending should be reserved for the Budget itself. The new slimmed-down Autumn Statement was designed to include little more than the OBR's latest forecasts on growth, borrowing and jobs. But confronted by the failure of his economic plan, Osborne has turned it into a second Budget in all but name. His most recent statement, for instance, included a freeze in fuel duty, an increase in the personal allowance to £9,440, a cut in corporation tax, a reduction in the tax-free pension allowance and the abolition of national pay bargaining for teachers.

So it's good to see the Treasury Select Committee calling the Chancellor out on his U-turn. In its report on the 2012 Autumn Statement, the committeee, which is chaired by Conservative MP Andew Tyrie, notes:

The OBR is required by statute to issue two economic and fiscal forecasts a year. The Chancellor’s own Autumn Statement, however, has now grown to be virtually a second Budget. There are good reasons for having a single substantial annual review of  the fiscal and economic state of the country, not least to enable the subsequent  presentation to Parliament of proposed tax measures and of Estimates of expenditure.  The Treasury should  re-establish the annual Budget as the main  focus of fiscal and economic policy making.

Tyrie said: "The autumn statement is not, nor should it be, a second budget. In recent years it has come to read like one.

"The case for two budgets is weak. An additional one can create uncertainty and carries an economic cost. Only in an emergency would it be likely to carry long-term benefit. The primacy of the budget as the main focus of fiscal and economic policy making should be re-established."

OBR forecasts "biased to over-optimism"

Another concern raised by the committee is that the OBR's forecasts so far have been "biased to over-optimism". It states: "This would not be a cause for concern but for the fact that the OBR’s forecasts have implications for decisions on public policy. This is because the fiscal mandate is defined with direct reference to a forecast, and because the OBR’s is at present the only official forecast against which the fiscal mandate can be measured."

Osborne reliant on "uncertain" 4G and Swiss tax windfalls

MPs also criticise Osborne for placing so much reliance on the anticipated windfall from the sale of the 4G  mobile spectrum and Swiss tax repatriation to meet his borrowing forecasts. 

The sums expected from the sale of the 4G spectrum and Swiss tax repatriation represent the majority of the additional receipts the Treasury intends to offset against the tax reductions and investment announced in the Autumn Statement for 2012–13 and 2013–14. Both are subject to uncertainty. In the case of the tax repatriation from Switzerland, the proceeds may not meet expectations if assumptions about the potential tax liabilities and expected behaviour of those affected prove not to be valid. 
As I noted at the time of the last Autumn Statement, it was only Osborne's inclusion of the expected £3.5bn receipts from the 4G auction that allowed him to claim that borrowing would fall this year, rather than rise (the boast that famously threw Ed Balls). If we strip out the £3.5bn, the forecast deficit for this year is £123bn, £1.4bn higher than last year.
 
And with borrowing currently £7.2bn (7.3 per cent) higher than at the same point last year, it's no surprise that Osborne was so keen to bag the 4G receipts early.
George Osborne poses for photographers outside 11 Downing Street before presenting his annual budget to Parliament on March 21, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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