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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Paul Nuttall is like his party: sad, desperate and finished

The party hope if they can survive until March 2019, they will grow strong off disillusionment with Brexit. They may not make it until then. 

It’s a measure of how far Ukip have fallen that while Theresa May faced a grilling over her social care U-Turn and Jeremy Corbyn was called to account over his past, the opening sections of Andrew Neill’s interview with Paul Nuttall was about the question of whether or not his party has a future.

The blunt truth is that Ukip faces a battering in this election. They will be blown away in the seats they have put up a candidate in and have pre-emptively retreated from numerous contests across the country.

A party whose leader in Wales once said that climate change was “ridiculous” is now the victim of climate change itself. With Britain heading out of the European Union and Theresa May in Downing Street, it’s difficult to work out what the pressing question in public life to which Ukip is the answer.

Their quest for relevance isn’t helped by Paul Nuttall, who at times tonight cast an unwittingly comic figure. Pressing his case for Ukip’s burka ban, he said earnestly: “For [CCTV] to work, you have to see people’s faces.” It was if he had intended to pick up Nigel Farage’s old dogwhistle and instead put a kazoo to his lips.

Remarks that are, written down, offensive, just carried a stench of desperation. Nuttall’s policy prescriptions – a noun, a verb, and the most rancid comment underneath a Mail article – came across as a cry for attention. Small wonder that senior figures in Ukip expect Nuttall to face a move on his position, though they also expect that he will see off any attempt to remove him from his crown.

But despite his poor performance, Ukip might not be dead yet. There was a gleam of strategy amid the froth from Nuttall in the party’s pledge to oppose any continuing payment to Brussels as part of the Brexit deal, something that May and Corbyn have yet to rule out.

If May does manage to make it back to Downing Street on 8 June, the gap between campaign rhetoric – we’ll have the best Brexit, France will pay for it – and government policy – we’ll pay a one-off bill and continuing contributions if need be – will be fertile territory for Ukip, if they can survive as a going concern politically and financially, until March 2019.

On tonight’s performance, they’ll need a better centre-forward than Paul Nuttall if they are to make it that far. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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