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.