How Osborne manipulated spending to claim the deficit is falling

The IFS warns that the £10.9bn underspend is not an "economically optimal allocation of spending".

One of the biggest surprises in George Osborne's Budget speech was his announcement that the deficit is forecast to fall this year (although excluding all "special factors" it's actually set to rise). With borrowing so far this year £5.3bn higher than in 2012, it seemed there was no escape for the Chancellor. 

For the first time since he entered the Treasury, he would be forced to announce that the deficit was expected to rise in annual terms and Ed Balls would have his revenge (Osborne memorably bamboozled the shadow chancellor in last year's Autumn Statement by banking the 4G auction receipts early).

But yesterday, against expectations, he was able to announce that the deficit was forecast to be £120.9bn this year (2012-13), £100m less than last year (2011-12). So how did he do it? The answers are becoming clearer today. First, Osborne is forcing government departments to underspend by a remarkable £10.9bn in the final months of this financial year (including a £2.2bn NHS underspend). While some of this underspend is permanent, the rest, as the OBR document noted (see p.93) has been moved forward into future years. Public spending, it appears, has been manipulated in order to allow Osborne to boast that the deficit has fallen again. 

At its traditional post-Budget briefing, the Institute for Fiscal Studies called the Chancellor out on his financial trickery. Noting that the £10.9bn was around double the average of the previous five years (see graph), IFS head Paul Johnson said

There is every indication that the numbers have been carefully managed with a close eye on the headline borrowing figures for this year. It is unlikely that this has led either to an economically optimal allocation of spending across years or to a good use of time by officials and ministers.
 
That the deficit is forecast to shrink by the minimum amount required for Osborne to claim that borrowing has fallen (£100m) is clear evidence that the underspend was motivated by political calculations, rather than economic ones.
 
As well as squeezing Whitehall spending, Osborne also saved money by, in the words of the OBR, delaying payments to some "international institutions" until next year. When I spoke to the Treasury press office, they cited the example of a £15m payment by the Department for International Development to Green Africa Power. The spokesman refused to confirm whether the institutions affected included the UN and the World Bank. Regardless, it is now clear that Osborne's creative accounting puts Gordon Brown to shame. 
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne leaves number 11 Downing Street in central London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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