After becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond was swift to confirm that George Osborne’s budget surplus target would be abandoned. The move was hailed by some as the beginning of a new era of fiscal policy – but it was more modest than it appeared. Rather than a statement of principle, the abandonment of the 2019-20 target was merely an acceptance of reality. In the absence of additional spending cuts or tax rises, it would inevitably be missed (as Osborne himself recognised following the EU referendum). The decision did not represent, as some suggested, “the end of austerity”.
Ahead of his first Autumn Statement on 23 November, the defining choice facing Hammond is whether to make a more radical break. As a new Resolution Foundation report notes, the Chancellor could either delay the surplus target (the conservative option) or embrace an alternative goal. Were he to seek a current budget suplus, rather than an overall one (as Labour pledged at the last general election), Hammond would avoid the need for further austerity and give himself up to £17bn of headroom. This would allow him to borrow for investment and to provide support for the “just managing” families (as Theresa May calls them) who will be squeezed by the continuing benefits freeze.
Alternatively, should Hammond merely delay Osborne’s surplus target by a year (to 2020-21), he would be forced to impose an additional £9bn of tax rises or spending cuts. Were he to reject any further fiscal tightening, a surplus would not be achieved until 2023-24 – too late to be politically relevant.
The most logical option, as the Resolution Foundation concludes, is for Hammond to target a current surplus. But since entering office, both he and May have emphasised their continuing commitment to fiscal conservatism (“He talks about austerity – I call it living within our means,” the latter told Jeremy Corbyn at her first PMQs). For Hammond to abandon the goal of the UK’s first budget surplus since 2001-02 would be a defining moment.