Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. HS2 must terminate here. All change, please (Times)

I can no longer back high-speed rail, writes Alistair Darling. There are better ways to spend £50bn than on one line.

2. Ed, don’t listen to the advice – shouting louder won’t help you (Independent)

Miliband is not currently in a strong enough position to spell out his plans, says Steve Richards.

3. The financial crisis that refuses to go away (Daily Telegraph)

Emerging markets such as Brazil, India and Turkey have an outbreak of the jitters, and it’s hard to see a happy outcome, writes Jeremy Warner.

4. It's right to worry about security, but sometimes data trawls can be useful (Guardian)

For once the government has got something right – the NHS's electronic surveys could be more effective than randomised control trials, says Polly Toynbee.

5. India needs fixing – financially and morally (Independent)

The country's most famous economists, Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati, have different solutions, writes Peter Popham. But both ignore one key problem.

6. Will people really stay married for £150 a year? (Times)

If Conservatives are serious about protecting the family it would make more sense to tighten up divorce laws, says Philip Collins. 

7. Why Ed Miliband will be Britain's next prime minister (Guardian)

The Labour leader understands the nature of the UK's economic problems, write John Denham and Peter Hain. With the support of his colleagues, he will win in 2015.

8. Wilberforce’s heirs are ready to tackle the great evil of the age (Daily Telegraph)

Britain helped stamp out slavery once – now Theresa May is trying to do the same again, says Fraser Nelson.

9.  Syria: chemical weapons with impunity (Guardian)

The options for response are all bad, and it is doubtful whether airstrikes would establish deterrence, says a Guardian editorial.

10. Productivity is not everything (Financial Times)

There is nothing wrong with the US economy a measure of redistribution would not put right, writes Samuel Brittan.

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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.