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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The 5 things the Tories aren't telling you about their manifesto

Turns out the NHS is something you really have to pay for after all. 

When Theresa May launched the Conservative 2017 manifesto, she borrowed the most popular policies from across the political spectrum. Some anti-immigrant rhetoric? Some strong action on rip-off energy firms? The message is clear - you can have it all if you vote Tory.

But can you? The respected thinktank the Institute for Fiscal Studies has now been through the manifesto with a fine tooth comb, and it turns out there are some things the Tory manifesto just doesn't mention...

1. How budgeting works

They say: "a balanced budget by the middle of the next decade"

What they don't say: The Conservatives don't talk very much about new taxes or spending commitments in the manifesto. But the IFS argues that balancing the budget "would likely require more spending cuts or tax rises even beyond the end of the next parliament."

2. How this isn't the end of austerity

They say: "We will always be guided by what matters to the ordinary, working families of this nation."

What they don't say: The manifesto does not backtrack on existing planned cuts to working-age welfare benefits. According to the IFS, these cuts will "reduce the incomes of the lowest income working age households significantly – and by more than the cuts seen since 2010".

3. Why some policies don't make a difference

They say: "The Triple Lock has worked: it is now time to set pensions on an even course."

What they don't say: The argument behind scrapping the "triple lock" on pensions is that it provides an unneccessarily generous subsidy to pensioners (including superbly wealthy ones) at the expense of the taxpayer.

However, the IFS found that the Conservatives' proposed solution - a "double lock" which rises with earnings or inflation - will cost the taxpayer just as much over the coming Parliament. After all, Brexit has caused a drop in the value of sterling, which is now causing price inflation...

4. That healthcare can't be done cheap

They say: "The next Conservative government will give the NHS the resources it needs."

What they don't say: The £8bn more promised for the NHS over the next five years is a continuation of underinvestment in the NHS. The IFS says: "Conservative plans for NHS spending look very tight indeed and may well be undeliverable."

5. Cutting immigration costs us

They say: "We will therefore establish an immigration policy that allows us to reduce and control the number of people who come to Britain from the European Union, while still allowing us to attract the skilled workers our economy needs." 

What they don't say: The Office for Budget Responsibility has already calculated that lower immigration as a result of the Brexit vote could reduce tax revenues by £6bn a year in four years' time. The IFS calculates that getting net immigration down to the tens of thousands, as the Tories pledge, could double that loss.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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