Osborne ducks the growth challenge

The £2.5bn increase in capital spending, funded by greater cuts elsewhere, will boost GDP by just 0.06 per cent.

Tomorrow's Budget is George Osborne's last opportunity to make a significant difference to growth before the election but we now know it's one he's not going to take. The Chancellor will announce an increase of £2.5bn in capital spending but rather than borrowing for growth, as Vince Cable, the Economist and Bloomberg have all recently urged him to, the move will be funded through greater cuts elsewhere.

Osborne told the cabinet this morning that all unprotected departments would have their budgets reduced by a further 1 per cent in 2013/14 and 2014/15. As a result, the effectiveness of the £2.5bn fund (itself a paltry amount) will be significantly reduced. Based on the OBR's fiscal multipliers (those pesky things that Robert Chote recently reminded the Prime Minister of), the increase in capital spending will boost GDP by £2.5bn but the cut in current spending will reduce it by £1.5bn. The net result, according to TUC economist Duncan Weldon, is that output will be increased by just 0.06 per cent of GDP (£1bn). A plan for growth this is not. 

Though Osborne will claim otherwise, alternatives were on offer. Cable called for the Chancellor to take advantage of Britain's historically low bond yields and borrow £14bn (1 per cent of GDP) to invest in housebuilding. As he wrote in his New Statesman essay:

One obvious question is why capital investment cannot now be greatly expanded. Pessimists say that the central government is incapable of mobilising capital investment quickly. But that is absurd: only five years ago the government was managing to build infrastructure, schools and hospitals at a level £20bn higher than last year. Businesses are forward-thinking and react to a future pipe - line of activity, regardless of how “shovel ready” it may be: we have seen that in energy investment, where the major firms need certainty over decades.

The Economist recommended an additional £28bn of infrastructure investment, with at least half funded through higher borrowing. Bloomberg argued for a minimum stimulus of $21bn, again largely deficit-financed. But Osborne persisting in the delusion that "you can't borrow more to borrow less" (in fact, as any Keynesian knows, you can) has once again chosen austerity over growth. 

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.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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