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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear