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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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.