George Osborne leaves the HM Treasury building before heading to deliver his Autumn Statement. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Osborne stands by plan to continue cuts even after the deficit is gone

By insisting that a surplus of £23bn is necessary to reduce the national debt, the Chancellor has exposed himself to the charge that he is an ideologue. 

The reason the OBR now famously forecast that public spending would fall to its lowest level since the 1930s under George Osborne's plans is his intention to continue cutting even once the deficit has been eliminated. Owing to £14.5bn of additional tightening in 2019-20, the Chancellor is predicted to achieve a surplus of £23bn, far beyond what most economists consider necessary to stabilise the public finances (a surplus of £4.8bn is forecast in 2018-19). It is this that has allowed Labour to accuse the Tories (as Ed Miliband did at today's PMQs) of having a plan for "shrinking the state", rather than merely "balancing the books". The party believes that the fear of slashed and burned public services could win it the election. 

In an attempt to repair some of the political damage inflicted on the Tories, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, David Gauke, told The Sunday Politics on 7 December that the party was not bound to a surplus of £23bn. He said: "We’ve made very clear we are committed to a surplus. At the moment the OBR predicts that we will have a surplus of £23bn, but we’re not making a commitment to the British people, 'that’s what the number will be in 2019'." 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee this afternoon, Osborne had the chance to do the same and dispel the image of him as an unrelenting axeman. But when questioned on the subject, he instead argued it was necessary to continue cutting in order to reduce the national debt as a share of GDP. He also said: "It’s absolutely the spending proposals that I submitted to the OBR." 

By emphasising the Tories' fiscal conservatism, Osborne is gambling that the voters will side with them over an opposition still viewed as profligate. But the opening he has provided for Labour means that fear of future cuts will now compete with fear of higher borrowing in the minds of voters. It is a battle that he is far from certain to win. As I noted yesterday, the latest ComRes/Independent survey found that 66 per cent do not believe that cuts should continue until the overall deficit has been eliminated with just 30 per cent in favour. 

Labour's shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Chris Leslie, has said in response: "George Osborne has finally admitted he approved the plans for deeper cuts which the OBR says will take public spending as a share of GDP back to 1930s levels. 

"After two weeks when the Tories have tried to say it's somehow the BBC's fault, George Osborne has come clean that these are his plans. The Tories are now pursuing increasingly extreme and ideological plans for much deeper spending cuts which go well beyond balancing the books.

"In contrast Labour will take a tough but balanced approach to cut the deficit each year and balance the books as soon as possible in the next Parliament. Our plan will make sensible spending cuts in non-protected areas, fairer choices like reversing the Tory tax cut for millionaires and change our economy so we earn our way to rising living standards for all."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.