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.

Photo: Getty
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Seven things we learnt from the Battle for Number 10

Jeremy Corbyn emerged the better as he and Theresa May faced a live studio audience and Jeremy Paxman. 

1. Jeremy Corbyn is a natural performer

The Labour leader put in a bravura performance in both the audience Q&A and in his tussle with Jeremy Paxman. He is often uncomfortable at Prime Minister’s Questions but outside of the Commons chamber he has the confidence of a veteran of countless panels, televised discussions and hustings.

If, like me, you watched him at more hustings in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016 than you care to count, this performance wasn’t a surprise. Corbyn has been doing this for a long time and it showed.

2. And he’s improving all the time

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t quite perfect in this format, however. He has a temper and is prone to the odd flash of irritation that looks bad on television in particular. None of the four candidates he has faced for the Labour leadership – not Yvette Cooper, not Andy Burnham, not Liz Kendall and not Owen Smith – have managed to get under his skin, but when an interviewer has done so, the results have never been pretty for the Labour leader.

The big fear going into tonight for Corbyn was that his temper would get the better of him. But he remained serene in the fact of Paxman’s attempts to rile him until quite close to the end. By that point, Paxman’s frequent interruptions meant that the studio audience, at least, was firmly on Corbyn’s side.

3. Theresa May was wise to swerve the debates

On Jeremy Corbyn’s performance, this validated Theresa May’s decision not to face him directly. He was fluent and assured, she was nervous and warbly.  It was a misstep even to agree to this event. Anyone who decides their vote as far as TV performances tonight will opt for Jeremy Corbyn, there’s no doubt of that.

But if she does make it back to Downing Street it will, in part, be because in one of the few good moves of her campaign she chose to avoid debating Corbyn directly.

4.…but she found a way to survive

Theresa May’s social care U-Turn and her misfiring campaign mean that the voters don’t love her as they once did. But she found an alternate route through the audience Q&A, smothering the audience with grimly dull answers that mostly bored the dissent out of listeners.

5. Theresa May’s manifesto has damaged her. The only question is how badly

It’s undeniable now that Theresa May’s election campaign has been a failure, but we still don’t know the extent of the failure. It may be that she manages to win a big majority by running against Jeremy Corbyn. She will be powerful as far as votes in the House of Commons but she will never again be seen as the electoral asset she once was at Westminster.

It could be that she ends up with a small majority in which case she may not last very much longer at Downing Street. And it could be that Jeremy Corbyn ends up defeating her on 8 June.

That the audience openly laughed when she talked of costings in her manifesto felt like the creaking of a rope bridge over a perilous ravine. Her path may well hold until 8 June, but you wouldn’t want to be in her shoes yourself and no-one would bet on the Conservative Party risking a repeat of the trip in 2022, no matter what happens in two weeks’ time.

6. Jeremy Paxman had a patchy night but can still pack a punch

If Jeremy Paxman ever does produce a collected Greatest Hits, this performance is unlikely to make the boxset. He tried and failed to rouse Jeremy Corbyn into anger and succeeded only in making the audience side with the Labour leader. So committed was he to cutting across Theresa May that he interrupted her while making a mistake.

He did, however, do a better job of damaging Theresa May than he did Jeremy Corbyn.  But not much better.

7. Theresa May may have opposed Brexit, but now she needs it to save her

It’s not a good sign for the sitting Prime Minister that the audience laughed at many of her statements. She had only one reliable set of applause lines: her commitment to getting the best Brexit deal.

In a supreme irony, the woman who opposed a Leave vote now needs the election to be a referendum re-run if she is to secure the big majority she dreams of. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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