Balls set for revenge as Osborne faces new failure on the deficit and debt

The Chancellor will be forced to announce that the deficit will be higher this year and that the debt won't fall until 2018.

When George Osborne delivered his first Budget in June 2010, he declared: "Unless we deal with our debts, there will be no growth." But the Chancellor has learned that the reverse is true – unless you stimulate growth, you can't deal with your debts. In last year's Autumn Statement, he abandoned his target of reducing debt as a proportion of GDP by 2015-16, extending it until 2016-17. Today's FT reports that the Budget will see this ambition further delayed until 2017-18 as the OBR downgrades its growth forecasts for the fifth time since it was created. Growth in 2013 is now expected to be just half of the 1.2 per cent predicted in December. 

But worse for Osborne, as I've previously reported, is that he will be forced to announce, for the first time since entering the Treasury, that borrowing is expected to be higher this year than last. Until now, even as growth has disappeared, the Chancellor has been able to boast that the deficit "is falling" and "will continue to fall each and every year". But no more. Even with the addition of £2.3bn from the auction of the 4G mobile spectrum, borrowing will still be greater than last year. With just two months' worth of figures to go (the figures for February will be published on Thursday), the deficit is currently £5.3bn higher than in 2012. To ensure it falls, Osborne would need to borrow £23.4bn or less in February and March, compared to £28.6bn last year. As the OBR noted last month, "to meet our autumn forecast would now require much stronger growth in tax receipts in the last two months of the year than we have seen since December, or much lower-than-forecast expenditure by central or local government". Ed Balls, who was wrongfooted last year when Osborne unexpectedly announced that the deficit would continue to fall (it later became clear that the Chancellor had mischievously bagged the 4G receipts early), will have his revenge.

The combination of a shrinking economy and a rising deficit will add force to Labour's charge that austerity is "hurting but not working". Even Conservative MPs are beginning to ask what all the pain has been for if the national debt won't begin to fall until 2018. Osborne is expected to meet his fiscal mandate to eliminate the structural deficit but since this is "a rolling five year" target that aim also won't be achieved until 2017-18. The Tories, however, are confident that they can turn this failure to their advantage. First, they can argue that Labour's response would be to "borrow even more". Following Vince Cable's recent intervention in the New Statesman, which saw the Business Secretary urge the government to borrow to invest, Balls is more confident about making the case for deficit-financed stimulus but Osborne believes that the public won't accept the argument that you can "borrow more to borrow less". Keynes's paradox of thrift is just too paradoxical. 

Second, if the next election is again fought over austerity, the Tories will argue that they, not Labour, are the best choice to "finish the job". While polls show that voters believe the government is cutting "too far and too fast", Cameron and Osborne continue to be rated above Balls and Miliband for economic competence. With further deficit reduction required, the Tories' hope is that voters will turn to the original axemen. It's for this reason that Miliband is determined to define the election as a contest between two competing visions of society and the economy, rather than as a narrow contest over austerity. How successful he is in doing so will do much to determine its outcome. 

George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street on February 27, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 70p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits It's easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough. 


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