Osborne is failing on his own terms as deficit increases

The budget is floating on a raft of windfall revenues.

The latest borrowing figures for the public sector have been released, and they show that George Osborne continues to be not particularly good at achieving his stated aim of deficit reduction.

Public sector net borrowing — the accounting name for what is usually called the deficit — was £15.4bn in December 2012, £0.6bn higher than it was in December 2011. This still leaves the cumulative deficit for the financial year 2012/13 on target to be considerably lower than it was for the financial year 2011/12 (£78.5bn compared to last year's £99.3bn), but success of deficit reduction has been reduced again. That figure, however, takes into account the windfall revenue from the transfer of the Royal Mail pension scheme. Excluding that windfall, the deficit would be £7.2bn higher this cumulative year than last.

In addition, and crucially, the last quarter of financial year 2012/13 is expected to see the transfer of profits from the Bank of England's quantitative easing program and the proceeds of the 4G spectrum auction — both of which are subject to political controversy, and both of which are expected to lead to sizeable reductions in the 2012/13 deficit. The 4G auction led to upset around the time of the autumn statement, when the Chancellor brought forward the revenue from it in order to be able to claim to be reducing the deficit; while the transfer of QE profits was called by our economics editor David Blanchflower a "smash-and-grab" raid on the Bank of England (even if it may not have been that bad in hindsight). The ONS concludes:

the transfers from the BEAPFF [the QE transfer] will reduce [the deficit] by £11.5 billion… the sales of the 4G spectrum will reduce [the deficit] by £3.5 billion.

Both of those are also windfall revenue, in the classic sense: the chancellor can't claim any fiscal prudence by pointing to the revenue they raise, since they will come once and only once. (And the latter, at least, might well turn out to be fiscal imprudence, if the Treasury ends up having to pay back more than it appropriated.)

The failure to cut the deficit may not be a bad thing, of course. If the economy is suffering from a paucity of aggregate demand, then the government cutting spending as fast as it wanted to would be terrible. Even while the government has been slashing public services, its inability to promote even minimal growth has meant that automatic fiscal stabilisers — things like means-tested and out-of-work benefits — have caused the resultant deficit reduction to be minimal. Keynesians should thank George Osborne for being so ineffectual at achieving the goal he has staked his political career on. His own party might not be quite so forthcoming.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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