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.