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 Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.