Revealed: why the deficit actually rose today

Strip out all special factors and total borrowing was £400m higher in 2012-13 than in the previous year.

The boast that the deficit "is falling" and "will continue to fall each and every year" has been crucial to George Osborne's political strategy, so what do the final set of figures for 2012-13 show? At first sight, it appears as if the Chancellor's luck has held. Excluding the transfer of the Royal Mail pension plan and the cash from the Bank of England's Asset Purchase Facility, public sector net borrowing was £120.6bn last year, £300m lower than in 2011-12. It's worth noting that this includes the one-off windfall of £2.4bn from the 4G auction (without which the deficit would be £2.1bn higher) and that borrowing was originally forecast to be £89bn, but Osborne's boast still holds.

Or does it? Strip out all special factors (including the reclassification of Northern Rock Asset Management and Bradford & Bingley as central government bodies) and total borrowing actually rose in 2012-13. As p. 7 of the ONS release states, "on this measure Public Sector Borrowing (PSNB ex) for the year to date is £0.4billion higher than for the same period last year." These figures are of almost no economic significance. Whether borrowing marginally rose or marginally fell makes little difference to the parlous state of the British economy. But they are of immense political significance, which is why Osborne went to such extraordinary lengths to ensure the headline figures would show a fall. As I noted following the Budget, the Treasury forced government departments to underspend by a remarkable £10.9bn in the final months of this year and delayed payments to some international institutions such as the UN and the World Bank. Noting that the £10.9bn was around double the average underspend of the previous five years, IFS head Paul Johnson said:

There is every indication that the numbers have been carefully managed with a close eye on the headline borrowing figures for this year. It is unlikely that this has led either to an economically optimal allocation of spending across years or to a good use of time by officials and ministers.

That Osborne is forced to resort to ever more creative accounting is evidence of how badly off track his deficit reduction plan is. The government is currently forecast to borrow £245bn more than expected in 2010, a figure that means, as Labour's Chris Leslie noted today, that it will take "400 years to balance the books". To all of this, of course, Osborne's reply is "but you would borrow even more!" Finding a succinct response to that claim remains one of the greatest challenges facing Ed Balls and Ed Miliband. 

George Osborne leaves number 11 Downing Street in central London on March 19, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.