Forever in his shadow: George Osborne has yet to achieve the more modest targets of his predecessor, Alistair Darling. Photo: Getty Images
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Budget 2015: George Osborne misses his targets again

George Osborne has offered some reprieve on austerity. Let’s hope it gets used wisely.

The usual politics of elections might dictate promising lots of goodies during the campaign and tightening the purse strings once safely in Government. George Osborne appears to have somewhat turned this upside down. The Conservative manifesto promised to eliminate borrowing by 2018-19. Today’s budget speech pushed back the deadline to 2019-20.

Annual day-to-day departmental spending is to be cut by just under £18 billion by 2019-20, or around five per cent in real terms. That doesn’t sound too bad: the OBR says that no year will see cuts as severe as in 2011-12 and 2012-13. However, not all is rosy. Where public spending goes is still seeing big changes. Promises for some public services will mean difficult choices for others. The NHS is to receive an extra £10 billion in real terms by 2020-21, and the MoD budget is to rise by 0.5 per cent in real terms a year. Prior to the election, promises were made on schools funding and international aid. Taken together, this could mean day-to-day spending rising by just under £10 billion by 2019-20 in some areas.

So other public services will still need to make substantial savings to pay for money going to the NHS, schools, aid and defence. However, departments will have more time to find the full savings needed, with the deadlines now pushed back. That’s important because after the last Parliament, the easiest savings will have already been made. In the SMF’s pre-Budget publication, One More Time, we argue that Government will need to take more time in trying to identify the next tranche of savings. Most likely, big reforms will be needed that look ahead to the longer-term challenge of an ageing population, as pointed out in the OBR’s Fiscal Sustainability Review. Giving departments breathing room to do this will ensure that big reforms are not rushed through at a higher price later on.

We will need to wait until the Autumn Spending Review to find out how different departments are set to share the cuts. However, an important principle that must run through the entire Spending Review programme is the need for investment in long-term growth to deliver sustainable rising incomes. Here, there may be reasons to worry. Whilst there is to be a levy on firms is to raise additional sums to fund apprenticeships, gross investment spending has been marked down compared to the March Budget. The roads investment fund paid for by Vehicle Excise Duty will only kick in at the end of the Parliament. The new fiscal rule targeting overall borrowing including investment also increases the vulnerability of capital spending.

Given the UK’s record on productivity, now is not the time to slow down on capital investment. George Osborne has offered some reprieve on austerity. Let’s hope it gets used wisely.

Nida Broughton is Senior Economist at the Social Market Foundation.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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