One of the biggest dilemmas facing George Osborne ahead of the Autumn Statement on 5 December is whether or not to abandon his pledge to have the national debt falling as as a percentage of GDP by 2015-16. Economic growth of just 0.6 per cent over the last two years has left the government on course to borrow around £190bn more than originally intended. In March, the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that debt would fall from 76.3 per cent in 2014-15 to 76 per cent in 2015-16 (thus meeting Osborne’s target), but the IMF has more recently predicted that it will rise from 78.8 per cent to 79.8 per cent.
With this in mind, the government briefed in September that it would abandon the target. The Times (£) reported that Osborne, with David Cameron’s agreement, was “ready to take a political hit on missing the target rather than face the ‘nightmare’ of further cuts.”
But better-than-expected growth and borrowing figures have prompted a rethink, with Osborne now considering whether he could still meet the target by announcing even deeper spending cuts. In today’s Telegraph, Peter Oborne writes that the Chancellor “wants to stick to his original economic strategy – a position he outlined eloquently during his speech to the Conservative Party Conference.” The biggest obstacle to him doing so is the Lib Dems. Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have repeatedly said that they will not accept a “penny more” off public spending (or “a penny less”). Osborne could have attempted to win his coalition partners round by offering them some form of wealth tax, but he has already ruled out a “mansion tax” and rejected Clegg’s call for an emergency tax on the rich.
It remains to be seen how the stalemate will be broken. As Oborne writes, “Osborne has nowhere to hide. Either he must give in to the Lib Dems, or the Lib Dems must give in to him.” Should the Lib Dems blink first, it would be one of their biggest betrayals yet.