Osborne faces failure on the deficit after 4G auction falls short

Ed Balls set for revenge after 4G auction raises £1.16bn less than expected.

George Osborne wrongfooted Ed Balls at last year's Autumn Statement when he announced that, contrary to expectations, the deficit was forecast to fall, not rise this year. The shadow chancellor was jeered by Osborne and Cameron as he repeatedly stumbled over his pre-prepared attack lines, prompting Osborne to declare: "That was the worst reply to an Autumn Statement that I have ever heard in this house. He said one thing that was true, he said it right at the beginning. He said the deficit wasn't rising. It was a Freudian slip."

As Balls later explained: "The outside forecasters were all expecting a rise in borrowing this year, because it has risen for the first seven months ... it was impossible to work out in that first minute or two what was going on."

It was only after Balls had replied that Osborne's creative accounting emerged. In a trick worthy of Enron, the Chancellor had banked the expected £3.5bn receipts from the 4G mobile spectrum auction - even though it had yet to take place. Had he not done so, the Office for Budget Responsibility would have forecast a deficit for this year of £123.8bn, £2.4bn higher than in 2012. 

But the Chancellor's trickery has now backfired. As Alex reports, the 4G auction raised £2.34bn - £1.16bn less than expected. As a result, when he delivers the Budget on 20 March, Osborne will almost certainly be forced to announce that the deficit will be higher this year than last. Borrowing so far this financial year is £7.2bn (7.3 per cent) higher than at the same point last year, leaving Osborne £4.86bn short after the inclusion of the 4G receipts. Somewhere in Yorkshire, Keynes's rottweiler is already planning his revenge. 

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne attends a press conference at the Treasury in Whitehall on February 6, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.