The OBR rebukes Cameron for claiming that austerity has not hit growth

"Tax increases and spending cuts reduce economic growth", Office for Budget Responsibility head tells Cameron in letter.

In his "there is no alternative" speech on the economy yesterday, David Cameron confidently declared that the Office for Budget Responsibility had shown that the coalition's austerity measures have not harmed growth.

As the independent Office for Budget Responsibility has made clear…

…growth has been depressed by the financial crisis…

…the problems in the Eurozone…

…and a 60 per cent rise in oil prices between August 2010 and April 2011.

They are absolutely clear that the deficit reduction plan is not responsible.

In fact, quite the opposite.

But it turns out that the OBR doesn't think that at all. In a notable assertion of his independence, Robert Chote, the watchdog's head, has just written to the Prime Minister correcting the record.

Chote writes:

For the avoidance of doubt, I think it is important to point out that every forecast published by the OBR since the June 2010 Budget has incorporated the widely held assumption that tax increases and spending cuts reduce economic growth in the short term.

He reminds Cameron that the OBR's multipliers assume that "every £100 of fiscal consolidation measures reduce GDP in that year by around £100 for capital spending cuts, £60 for welfare and public services, £35 for increases in the VAT rate and £30 for income tax and National Insurance increases". Fiscal consolidation is estimated to have reduced GDP by 1.4 per cent in 2011-12 alone.

Chote adds that the OBR believes that weaker-than-expected growth is most likely due to higher inflation, deteriorating export markets and the recession in the eurozone. But he emphasises that this doesn't mean Cameron can claim that austerity has not hit growth, let alone that it has had "the opposite" effect (does he still believe in expansionary fiscal contraction?)

The OBR's original forecasts were premised on the assumption that spending cuts and tax rises depress output, even if subsequent downgrades have been largely attributed to other factors. As Chote puts it, "we believe that fiscal consolidation measures have reduced economic growth over the past couple of years, but we are not yet persuaded that they have done so by more than the multipliers we use would suggest."

In other words, Cameron was wrong. And the independent (no scare quotes required) OBR deserves credit for pointing out as much. But if, in addition to making growth forecasts, the OBR is going to start fact-checking Cameron's speeches, it will have its work cut out.

Just a month ago, as Staggers readers will recall, the PM was rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority for falsely claiming in a Conservative Party political broadcast that the coalition "was paying down Britain’s debts".

You can read Chote's letter in full below.

Letter From Robert Chote to Prime Minister

David Cameron delivers his speech on the economy during a visit to precision grinding engineers Cinetic Landis Ltd on March 7, 2013 in Keighley. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR