What Osborne didn't mention: wage growth has been revised down

The Chancellor boasted of higher GDP and employment, but the living standards squeeze is set to continue.

For the first time since he became Chancellor, George Osborne arrived for today's Autumn Statement brandishing unambiguously improved economic forecasts. In the triumphalist manner of Gordon Brown, he boasted of "the largest improvement" at any Budget or Autumn Statement for 14 years. Growth is now forecast to be 1.4% this year (up from 0.8%) and 2.4% (up from 1.8%) next year. Unemployment is forecast to be 7.6% this year (down from 7.9%) and 7.1% next year (down from 8%). Borrowing is forecast to be £111bn this year, £9bn lower than expected in March (although still £41bn higher than expected in 2010), and £96bn next year. 

But there was one set of forecasts that Osborne didn't mention: wages. Unlike every other measure, the OBR now expects earnings growth to be weaker, not stronger, than it did at the Budget. The forecast for this year was left unchanged (at 1.5%), while that for next year was revised downwards by 0.2% to 2.6% and that for 2015 by 0.4% to 3.3%. As a result, after already falling by an average of £1,600 since 2010, wages will continue to lag behind inflation in 2014 and will be flat in 2015. 

The danger for Osborne is that even as the UK grows faster than any other G7 country, most families won't feel the benefits, not least in an economy as unequal as Britain's. Labour will still be able to warn that this is a "recovery for the few, not the many" right up until May 2015. 

For that reason, it is far from certain that the UK's economic gains will translate into political gains for the Tories. When Osborne and David Cameron accuse Miliband and Balls of desperately trying to avoid talking about the economy, they should remember that, to most voters, living standards are the economy.

Today, in an attempt to show that he is not oblivious to the squeeze on voters' incomes, the Chancellor offered baubles including a freeze in fuel duty, a reduction in green levies, free school meals for infant pupils and a £1,000 cut in business rates for small firms. But for voters enduring the longest fall in living standards since 1870, that is very small beer.  

George Osborne talks to UK scientists in No. 11 Downing Street on December 4, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.