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.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.