George Osborne is given a tour of the production line at Bentley Motors on December 4, 2014 in Crewe. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Fastest US growth for 11 years spoils Osborne's boast

The Chancellor can no longer declare that the UK is the fastest growing major economy.

One of George Osborne's favourite boasts is that the UK is "the fastest growing of any major advanced economy in the world" (as declared in the second line of his Autumn Statement). That was true at the time, with Britain growing at an annual rate of 3 per cent, but revisions today have spoilt the Chancellor's brag.

Earlier today, the ONS downgraded year-on-year growth in the UK from 3 per cent to 2.6 per cent, leaving Britain behind Australia and the United States. Now, just to sharpen the contrast, annual US growth in Q3 has been revised up to 5 per cent: the fastest rate for 11 years and comfortably ahead of the 2.8 per cent posted by the UK over the same quarter. It's true, of course, that the UK has suffered more than its competitors from the stagnation of the eurozone (net trade is down) but Osborne can't make the comparison in good times and then reject it in bad times. And while US GDP is now 8.9 per cent above its pre-recession peak, the UK's is just 2.9 per cent above. 

After this, and Labour's blindsiding of him on spending cuts, the Chancellor would be wise to return a more humble figure in the new year. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.