Don't celebrate just yet, George. Photo: Getty Images
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Today's borrowing figures are good news - but we're not out of the woods yet

Britain will need five more years like this if George Osborne is to have any chance of balancing the books, warns Nida Broughton.

Today’s Government borrowing figures provide an optimistic backdrop to the Chancellor’s Summer Budget on 8 July. The year has got off to a good start. In March, the OBR expected the total amount borrowed in 2015-16 to fall by around 17%. So far, borrowing in the first two months of 2015-16 is around 24% lower than the same time last year.

It is good news – and it will be a relief for the Chancellor.  The SMF’s analysis shows that George Osborne has set himself a difficult task for this Parliament.  What seems like an easy job – saving £1 in every £100 for two years, turns out to be rather more difficult when spending promises and other factors outside the Government’s direct control have to be paid for. Commitments to spend more on the NHS, international aid and schools have been made. Debt interest payments are forecast to continue to rise. With huge chunks of the Government budget protected from cuts, the SMF estimates that the true scale of the challenge could be closer to having to save £12 in every £100.

Achieving those level of cuts will be hard enough – certainly harder than in 2010. With the easiest cuts already made, Government will need to be innovative to save money whilst keeping up the quality of public services. Yet, the ability to actually push through these cuts, though important, will not be as crucial as economic growth in getting the deficit down.

A look at the OBR’s March 2015 forecast shows that rising tax revenues is supposed to do the majority of the hard work in clearing the deficit. Tax revenues are expected to rise by roughly £20 billion- £30 billion every year over the next few years, allowing borrowing – expected by the OBR to be around £75 billion in 2015-16 - to dwindle to zero by 2018-19.

The Chancellor needs four years of steady economic growth to drive up tax revenues. The question is whether the UK economy can deliver that. We do not yet know whether the poor productivity growth we have seen since the crisis is evidence of a “new normal”; or whether we can in fact return to the levels of growth seen pre-crisis. How ephemeral was the growth we saw before the crash, and how much permanent damage has the economy taken because of the crisis?

The public finance forecast hinges on this. The OBR’s forecasts assume that the answer lies somewhere in the middle: that the economy’s potential to grow has taken a hit, but that it will slowly return to its historical average.  The SMF’s analysis shows that if this does not happen, then borrowing would fail to be eliminated by 2018-19, even if all the cuts currently planned are fully implemented.

The borrowing figures provide some good news. Government revenues – mainly from taxes – are 4% higher than this time last year. It’s a good start, but we’re going to need another few more years of same if the public finances are to be repaired.

Nida Broughton is Senior Economist at the Social Market Foundation.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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