Three things to bear in mind when watching Osborne today

Why everyone’s pretty much making it up.

1. Most of today’s cuts were decided three years ago In his statement today, the Chancellor needs to find cuts in most unprotected departments of around 8-9 per cent. That number flows mainly from three things: the pace of deficit reduction; the decision to protect health, schools, international development and pensioners; and forecasts for so-called Annually Managed Expenditure (AME). All three are either old news or else significantly beyond Osborne’s direct control. That’s not to say that today’s decisions don’t matter. Some departments will get more or less than 8-9 per cent—if briefings are right, local government will lose 10 per cent, meaning fewer cuts elsewhere. But these are relatively small movements around a big number that flows from existing plans.

2. Today’s cuts will hurt but things are set to get tougher The Chancellor will be pleased at the lack of blood on Whitehall carpets today. Tough settlements have been reached and coalition relationships have held up well. Even with no extra benefit cuts being announced in his statement, Osborne has also succeeded in baking in a tough settlement on welfare.

Yet the cuts needed to finish the job in 2016-17 and 2017-18 will mean much tougher battles. This is partly a question of scale. The Chancellor needs a further £13bn in both 2016-17 and 2017-18 on top of today’s cuts in order to meet his deficit targets. Without further tax rises or welfare cuts, that means speeding up departmental cuts by around 50 per cent after the election. Even keeping departmental cuts to their current pace would require £10bn of further tax rises or welfare cuts. But the battles will also get tougher for the simple reason that every fresh pound of cuts will be harder than the last. As things stand, 2016-17 and 2017-18 could leave departments like Defence and the Home Office a third smaller than they were in 2010. The last mile will be the hardest.

3. Everyone’s pretty much making it up Having said all of this, the most important thing today is to treat everything you hear with a big dose of scepticism. The level of uncertainty surrounding the Chancellor’s strategy is enormous. This is because the main figure guiding the cuts is the pledge to eliminate the structural deficit, the part of the deficit that won’t go away when the economy’s running at full capacity. Needless to say, that’s an incredibly hard thing to know. Far from being an academic point, these estimates about the size of the so-called ‘output gap’ change everything. Last year, two plausible estimates suggested that the Chancellor either needed to make £22bn of extra cuts by 2017-18 or else needed to make £35bn fewer cuts than planned. That’s a difference of £57bn. Bear it in mind when you hear confident statements today for or against £11.5bn of new cuts.

George Osborne during a visit to a branch of Lloyds TSB bank on June 19, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Plunkett is director of policy and development at the Resolution Foundation

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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