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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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