Next week, George Osborne will announce the result of the triennial Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). CSRs are the big brother to Departmental Spending Reviews, where ministries consider their goals over the short- and middle-term and match slices of the funding pie to policies which – they hope – will be instruments to achieve desired outcomes.
In financial terms, DSRs aren’t truly zero-sum. Although interest groups within any particular ministry will lobby for their pet projects, there is always a little give around the whole pie. In the MoD, for instance, the media hype up tensions between the Army, Navy and Air Force, but when the chips are down the whole lot can demand cash off the Treasury.
In contrast, the pie can’t really grow for the CSR. The Treasury has no bigger hand to feed it, as it raises money direct from us, the tax payer, and from the bond market. Neither is particularly forgiving when Mr Osborne asks for more moolah, especially during a recession.
The Chancellor will this year sit in a Star Chamber to hear Secretaries of State make their pitches for cash. To an extent he is balancing apples with pears and bananas, aircraft carriers with housing benefit and bobbies on the beat. The quid pro quo for bearing the risk and getting the blend wrong, is that One Horse Guards can set departmental public sector agreements (PSAs) - targets to you and me.