George Osborne will give his Autumn Statement this week. Photo: Flickr/altogetherfool
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More borrowing and a stubborn deficit: what will we hear in the Autumn Statement?

George Osborne will deliver his Autumn Statement on Wednesday. What will it contain?

The Chancellor will deliver his Autumn Statement on Wednesday. Although the government insists that it is leading the country through a recovery, deep economic difficulties remain and will cloud George Osborne’s announcements this week.

The Treasury still hasn’t managed to bring the deficit under control, and over the next five years, whatever government we have will have to borrow up to £75bn. Borrowing is going to be higher this year than last year, and the deficit is only down a third since 2010.

So in these gloomier than planned circumstances, how will the Chancellor frame the Autumn Statement to attempt to win the support of an electorate that will be voting in the next government in under six months?

 

Roads

We knew infrastructure would be a big part of the Autumn Statement, and probably next year’s Budget, mainly because of the hints dropped by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander over the past few months, and also Osborne’s vocal enthusiasm for infrastructure projects.

This has manifested itself in £15bn to be spent on new road funding in England, which includes:

  • A tunnel under Stonehenge, to tackle a notorious bottleneck
  • Improving M25 junctions
  • 100 road improvement schemes
  • Adding 1,300 new miles of extra lanes to motorways and A-roads

The problem politically with these plans is that they don’t exactly amount to a big, sexy infrastructure project, such as the “HS3” scheme that ministers have recently been discussing. Also, the amount of money the government is planning to spend on this was initially announced in 2013, meaning Labour can dismiss this as a “re-announcement”.

 

NHS

Whenever any politician comes up with a proposal for the health service now, it is highly politically significant because Labour is attempting to bring the subject to the top of the agenda, as it is the party most trusted with the NHS. Indeed, the Tories have reportedly been advised in the past by their election strategist Lynton Crosby that they should try to avoid talking about the NHS, so unlikely is it that the public will trust them with it following this parliament’s controversial Health and Social Care Act.

However, there is a funding crisis in the NHS that Osborne has to plan on fixing. But he will be approaching this in the Autumn Statement with very few fireworks. He will pledge to spend an extra £2bn a year on the NHS, to stave off the funding hole.

This has been welcomed by NHS England, but such a figure will only be able to keep the health service going as it is at present, rather than allowing for growth and new investment. It is also lower than the figure the Labour party has already announced it will spend annually on the NHS, £2.5bn. Also, Osborne is only gaining the extra cash from under-spending and further efficiency savings from other Whitehall departments. The Guardian has called this the equivalent of “rummaging down the back of the sofa”.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.