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.

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

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