George Osborne stands behind the bar during a visit to officially re-open The Red Lion pub following a major refurbishment in Westminster on February 25, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images
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How big is Osborne's black hole? The problem is we don't know

The level of austerity required varies hugely depending on how much growth is thought possible.

Today's FT story on George Osborne's "£20bn black hole" might appear puzzling at first. With the British economy growing faster than that of any other major western country (albeit after three years of stagnation), shouldn't the public finances be getting better, not worse? On one level they are: borrowing for 2013-14  is currently £4bn lower than last year. But the problem for the Chancellor is that the models used by the Office for Budget Responsibility (the budgetary watchdog he founded in 2010), which the FT has replicated, deem this improvement to be almost entirely cyclical (temporary), rather than structural (permanent). While the body's short-term forecasts have improved, its long-term forecasts have worsened. Osborne's cuts have permanently dented the economy's growth potential. The result is that the structural deficit (the part of the deficit that exists regardless of the level of growth) is now estimated to be even bigger than first thought, and that means even more austerity will be needed to balance the books. 

The problem with all of these forecasts is that they hinge on one highly uncertain judgement: the size of the output gap. The output gap (or the level of "spare capacity") is the difference between current and potential growth. If the gap is thought to be large, then a significant chunk of the deficit can be eliminated over time through growth, rather than spending cuts and tax rises. But if it is thought to be small (the OBR puts it at 1.8 per cent), then even greater austerity is needed. At present, the OBR estimates that the structural deficit will be £85bn this year, while the total deficit will be £111bn (meaning £26bn of austerity is avoided). But the FT''s updated forecasts suggest that the difference between the two might be smaller than thought, hence the warning of a "£20bn black hole". 

The complication for Osborne (and Ed Balls, who has pledged to eliminate the current deficit by the end of the next parliament) is that economists are hugely divided over the potential for higher growth (the Independent's Ben Chu has a useful graph of their differing forecasts here). The Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee is even more pessimistic than the OBR; it estimates that the output gap is just 1-1.5 per cent, meaning that austerity of £91-97bn will be needed to Osborne to meet his target of running a budget surplus by 2018-19. But the market, on average, is more optimistic than both; it assumes an output gap of 2.7 per cent, meaning the level of austerity required falls to £77bn. Others are even more optimistic. The National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) puts the output gap at 4.3 per cent, with £60bn of austerity required, at least £30bn less than assumed by the Bank of England. 

The danger highlighted by some economists is that an overly pessimistic estimate could lead to austerity being applied more severely than necessary. As Andrew Goodwin, senior economist at Oxford Economics, has said: "Oxford Economics analysis suggests that the economy has a significantly larger amount of spare capacity than the OBR estimates which, in turn, suggests that the medicine of austerity could end up being applied in a dose higher than the patient actually needs."  This calculation matters as much for Labour as it does for the Tories. The level of growth thought possible will determine the amount the party can spend on its priorities - housing, childcare, employment, skills, health and social care - while meeting its tough deficit reduction targets. If it follows Osborne and uses the OBR's pessimistic forecasts, it could end up with a minimalist manifesto it later regrets. 

Wonkish it might be, but the output gap is probably the most important number in British politics. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Staying in the EU would make it easier to tackle concerns about immigration, not less

Brexit is not only unlikely to deliver the control people want, it may actually undermine people’s faith in the system even further.

As Theresa May prepares to set out her latest plan for Brexit in Florence on Friday, those on all sides of the debate will wait to see if there are answers to fundamental questions about Britain’s future outside of the EU. Principle among those is how the UK immigration system will work. How can we respond to Leave voters’ concerns, while at the same time ensuring our economy isn’t badly damaged?

We must challenge the basic premise of the Vote Leave campaign: that dealing with public’s concern about immigration means we have to leave the EU and Single Market.

In fact the opposite is true. Our study into the options available to the UK shows that we are more likely to be able to restore faith in the system by staying within Europe and reforming free movement, than by leaving.

First, there are ways to exercise greater control over EU migration without needing to change the rules. It is not true that the current system of free movement is "unconditional", as recently claimed in a leaked Home Office paper. In fact, there is already considerable scope under existing EU rules to limit free movement.

EU rules state that in order to be given a right to reside, EU migrants must be able to demonstrate proof that they are either working, actively seeking work, or self-sufficient, otherwise they can be proactively removed after three months.

But unlike other continental systems, the UK has chosen not to operate a worker registration system for EU nationals and thus has no way of tracking where they are or what they’re doing. This could be changed tomorrow, if the government were so minded.

Other reforms being discussed at the highest levels within Europe would help deal with the sense that those coming to the UK drive down wages and conditions. The UK could make common cause with President Macron in France, who is pushing for reform of the so-called "Posted Workers Directive", so that companies seeking to bring in workers from abroad have to pay those workers at the same rate as local staff. It could also follow the advice of the TUC and implement domestic reforms of our labour market to prevent exploitation and undercutting.

Instead, the UK government has chosen to oppose reform of the Posted Workers Directive and made it clear that it has no interest in labour market reform.

Second, achieving more substantive change to free movement rules is not as implausible as often portrayed. Specifically, allowing member states to enact safeguards to slow the pace of change in local communities is not unrealistic. While the principle of free movement is a cornerstone of the European project, how it is applied in practice has evolved. And given that other countries, such as France, have expressed concern and called for reform, it is likely to evolve further.

The reforms to free movement negotiated by David Cameron in 2016 illustrate that the EU Commission can be realistic. Cameron’s agreement (which focused primarily on benefits) also provides an important legal and political precedent, with the Commission having agreed to introduce "safeguards" to respond to "situations of inflow of workers from other Member States of an exceptional magnitude over an extended period of time".

Similar precedents can be found within a number of other EU agreements, including the Acts of Accession of new Member States, the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The UK should seek a strengthened version of Cameron’s "emergency brake", which could be activated in the event of "exceptional inflows" from within the EU. We are not the first to argue this.

Of course some will say that it is unrealistic to expect the UK to be able to get more than Cameron achieved in 2016. But put yourself if in the shoes of the EU. If you believe in a project and want it to succeed, moral imperative is balanced with realism and it hardly needs pointing out that the political context has radically shifted since Cameron’s negotiation.

In contrast, a "hard Brexit" will not deliver the "control of our borders" that Brexiteers have promised. As our report makes clear, the hospitality, food, manufacturing and social care sectors heavily depend on EU workers. Given current employment rates, this means huge labour shortages.

These shortages cannot be wished away with vague assertions about "rejoining the world" by the ultra free-market Brexiteers. This is about looking after our elderly and putting food on our tables. If the UK leaves in April 2019, it is likely that the government will continue to want most categories of EU migration to continue. And whatever controls are introduced post-Brexit are unlikely to be enforced at the border (doing so would cause havoc, given our continued commitment to visa-free travel).  Instead we would be likely to see an upsurge in illegal migration from within the EU, with people arriving at the border as "visitors" but then staying on to seek work. This is likely to worsen problems around integration, whereby migrants come and go in large numbers, without putting down roots.

We can do this a different way. The important issues that most drive public concern about EU migration - lack of control, undercutting, pace of change - can be dealt with either within current rules or by seeking reform within the EU.

The harsh truth is that Brexit is not only unlikely to deliver the control people want, it may actually undermine people’s faith in the system even further.

Some will say that the entire line of argument contained here is dangerous, since it risks playing into an anti-immigrant narrative, rather than emphasising migration’s benefits. This is an argument for the ivory tower, not the real world.

There is a world of difference between pandering to prejudice and acknowledging that whilst EU migration has brought economic benefits to the UK, it has also created pressures, for example, relating to population churn within local communities.

The best way to secure public consent for free movement, in particular, and immigration in general, is to be clear about where those pressures manifest and find ways of dealing with them, consistent with keeping the UK within the EU.

This is neither an attempt at triangulation nor impractical idealism. It’s about making sure we understand the consequences of one of the biggest decisions this country has ever taken, and considering a different course.

Harvey Redgrave is a senior policy fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and director of strategy at Crest Advisory.