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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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.