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.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
Show Hide image

Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left