George Osborne's Autumn Statement: 10 things to look out for

Including, when will living standards start to rise, will there be new money for the NHS and how much more austerity is Osborne planning?

George Osborne will deliver his Autumn Statement at 11:15am today but, as so often with these events, it feels as if much of it has already been announced. The imposition of capital gains tax on foreign property owners, the freeze in business rates, the scheduled rise in the state pension age to 70 (in the 2060s) and the scrapping of employers' National Insurance for workers under 21 have all been pre-briefed to the media. 

One reason for this is that Osborne wants as much attention as possible to be focused on the OBR's improved forecasts for growth, employment and borrowing. Having responded to Labour's cost-of-living offensive by reducing green levies on energy customers, his other main aim is to shift the debate back towards the deficit and austerity, issues on which the Tories continue to out-poll Miliband's party. This being Osborne, he'll also have held at least one headline announcement back to triumphantly flourish at the end of the speech. And there's much more to look out for too

1. When will living standards start to rise? And by how much?

At present, while the economy is growing at its fastest rate for six years (and faster than any other G7 country), real wages, as Labour relentlessly points out, are still in decline, with earnings growth of just 0.8% in the most recent quarter compared to inflation of 2.2%. The Treasury's hope and expectation is that this will begin to change next year. How strong the OBR expects earnings growth to be will do much to determine the extent of any pre-election feelgood factor. 

2. More money for the NHS?

With ministers suffering sleepless nights at the prospect of a winter A&E crisis, one persistent rumour in Wesminster is that Osborne will announce additional money for the NHS. As well as helping to prevent the health service from collapse, this would offer the Chancellor a chance to reaffirm his party's commitment to the NHS and to (falsely) allege that Labour would be cutting it. 

3. How big is the output gap? (How much more austerity is needed?) 

One wonkish measure worth keeping an eye on is the output gap: the difference between actual and potential growth. The size of this will determine how much more austerity will be required to eliminate the structural deficit (the part of the deficit that exists regardless of the level of economic output) in the next parliament. 

4. Benefit cuts for under-25s

At every Budget and Autumn Statement he delivers, Osborne always finds a way to put welfare centre stage and today is likely to be no exception. One issue on which the Chancellor is expected to give more details is the coalition's plan to remove benefits from under-25s who are not "earning or learning". 

5. What's happening to income tax threshold?

Having already announced that the coalition's pledge to raise the personal allowance to £10,000 will be met by next April, there's room for Osborne to go further. Nick Clegg has urged him to raise it to at least £10,500, while David Cameron is said to be eyeing a £10,750 threshold. Osborne may well choose to keep his powder dry until the Budget but look out for a hint of further action today. 

6. When will a budget surplus be achieved?

The most significant announcement in Osborne's Conservative conference speech was his pledge to run a budget surplus by the end of the next parliament. With the OBR's updated forecasts, we'll find out when this might be achieved (today's FT suggests 2018-19). Expect Osborne to use this as his essential test of whether Labour is prepared to be fiscally responsible and as a signal of when greater tax cuts may become possible. 

7. Will Osborne halve the deficit by the election? 

Despite borrowing billions more than expected, Osborne is fond of reminding us that the deficit has still fallen by a third since the general election (from £159bn in 2009-10 to £115bn in 2012-13). If the numbers fall right today, he may well boast that he'll have halved it by the time of the general election (the Darling plan, in other words). 

8. Another cut in corporation tax?

Osborne has used almost every one of his Budgets and Autumn Statements to announce that he'll be cutting corporation tax by even more than expected (it is currently due to fall to 20% in 2015-16 from its 2010 level of 28%, giving the UK the joint-lowest rate in the G20). Today he'll publish new Treasury research showing that, in the next 20 years, the cuts are forecast to add around 0.7% to GDP (merely suggesting, as Richard Murphy puts it, that Osborne has finally discovered the multiplier), so it would be unsurprising if he chose to combine this with an annoucement that the rate will fall even further - to 19%. 

9. More public sector job losses?

As well as publishing new forecasts for growth, inflation and borrowing, the OBR will release its new estimate of how many public sector jobs will be lost over the course of the austerity programme. In the most recent Budget, this figure was put at 1.2 million but with Osborne planning further spending cuts to pay for tax cuts and benefit increases (free school meals), it could rise today. 

10. A cut in fuel duty?

The Chancellor has already vowed to freeze fuel duty for the remainder of this parliament but with the improvement in the public finances will he go further and deliver an outright cut? If Osborne is looking for a headline announcement designed to show that the government is not indifferent to the "cost-of-living crisis" this is the most likely candidate. 

George Osborne inspects material during a visit to AW Hainsworth and Sons on October 25, 2013 in Leeds. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

GARY WATERS
Show Hide image

In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt