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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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.