Will Osborne's two Budget nightmares come true?

If the OBR forecasts a triple-dip recession and a higher deficit this year, the Chancellor's failure will be clearer than ever.

After a notable absence of Budget leaks, last night brought a slew of pre-briefed announcements. Today's Sun reveals that Osborne will scrap next month's 6p rise on a pint of beer and abolish the beer duty escalator, while the Guardian reports that he will announce an increase in the personal allowance to £10,000, a year ahead of schedule, and either delay or cancel the fuel duty rise. After last year's disastrous decision to abolish the 50p tax rate, brilliantly framed by Labour as the "millionaires' tax cut", all three measures are intended to signal that the Chancellor's priority is now reducing the cost of living for those famed "hardworking families". Osborne has wisely resisted calls from the Thatcherite right to abolish capital gains tax or slash corporation tax to an Irish-style 11 per cent - measures that would largely benefit the well-off. 

But what we won't get until the Chancellor stands up at 12:30pm are the Office for Budget Responsibility's updated forecasts for growth, borrowing and employment - and here's where the pain could lie for Osborne.

For the fifth time since it was established, the OBR is expected to downgrade its growth forecasts. Growth in 2013, which was predicted to be 1.2 per cent in the Autumn Statement, is now likely to be only half that amount. But the most important figure, for the Chancellor's immediate political prospects, will be that for the first quarter of this year. It is this number that will determine whether Britain has suffered an unprecedented "triple-dip recession". We won't get the first estimate from the Office for National Statistics until 26 April but a negative forecast from the OBR would make it far harder for Osborne to claim that "we're on the right track". A third recession in four years is the Chancellor's first nightmare. 

The second is a higher deficit. Until now, even as growth has disappeared, the Chancellor has been able to boast that borrowing "is falling" and "will continue to fall each and every year". But today, for the first time since he entered the Treasury, Osborne will almost certainly be forced to announce that the deficit is forecast to be higher this year than last. Even with the addition of £2.3bn from the auction of the 4G mobile spectrum, borrowing is currently £3bn higher than in 2012. As the OBR noted last month, "to meet our autumn forecast would now require much stronger growth in tax receipts in the last two months of the year than we have seen since December, or much lower-than-forecast expenditure by central or local government". Expect Robert Chote and his fellow number-crunchers to announce that fate has failed to favour the Chancellor. 

The combination of a shrinking economy and a rising deficit will add force to Labour's charge that austerity is "hurting but not working". With Osborne also expected to announce that the national debt won't begin to fall as a proportion of GDP until 2017-18 (two years behind schedule), even some Tory MPs are beginning to ask what all the pain has been for. 

To all of this, the Chancellor's inevitable riposte to Labour will be "but you would borrow even more!" One of the key tests for Ed Miliband (who, as leader of the opposition, will reply to Osborne, rather than Ed Balls) will be how or whether he seeks to rebut this charge.

Freddy Krueger from "Nightmare on Elm Street". Photograph: Getty Images

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war