Blow for Osborne as the deficit rises again

Borrowing so far this year is 10 per cent higher than in 2011.

Thanks to some dubious accounting, George Osborne was able to boast in his Autumn Statement that the deficit would be lower this year than last. But the actual figures (as opposed to the OBR's forecasts) show that it's still rising. Today's release from the Office for National Statistics reveals that borrowing was £17.5bn last month, £1.2bn higher than in November 2011. The deficit for the year to date is now £92.7bn, £8.3bn (9.9 per cent) higher than in the same period the previous year.

It was the anticipated £3.5bn windfall from the 4G spectrum auction that allowed Osborne to claim that the deficit would continue to fall in annual terms (it is 22.3 per cent lower than in 2009-10). Without that, the OBR's forecasts suggest that borrowing is set to come in at £123.8bn, £2.4bn higher than in 2011-12. So it's notable that the ONS release says that it "has yet to classify how the proceeds of the auction (or the initial deposits) should be treated under National Accounts rules and so how they will impact on the statistical measures in this bulletin." Should the ONS decide for any reason that the 4G receipts can't be counted toward deficit reduction, Osborne will be in trouble.

There was also bad news on growth as Q3 GDP was downgraded from 1 per cent to 0.9 per cent. This revision is statistically insignificant (the figures are constantly revised upwards and downwards) but it could be a prelude of worse things to come. There is a strong chance that the Q4 figures, which are released on 25 January, will show that the economy is shrinking again. The OBR has forecast a contraction of -0.1 per cent. Before the last growth figures were released, David Cameron memorably declared that "the good news will keep coming". He may soon have cause to reject those words.

Chancellor George Osborne leaves Number 11 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.