Conservative Diary

« Will the press feel that it can ever rely on Cameron again? | Main | Osborne reheats one of the capital ideas from his Autumn Statement »

Your five-point checklist for tomorrow’s Budget

By Peter Hoskin
Follow Peter on Twitter

Only five points? Didn’t the checklist I prepared in advance of the Autumn Statement contain ten? Well, yes, it did – but many of those points still apply, and this isn’t meant to be exhaustive anyway. This is more about what to look out for in the big print, rather than what will be hidden in the small print. Here goes:

1. Oh yes, the deficit. That pre-Autumn Statement post was mostly about the debt: George Osborne was set to break his fiscal rule to have the national debt growing no faster than the economy by 2015, and it turned out he did break it. It’s still worth keeping an eye on this, not least because the debt forecasts may slip even further.

But now it’s more about that which builds up the debt: government borrowing. We all know how much emphasis George Osborne has placed on “getting the borrowing down”, and he’s managed it thusfar – as the Tories like to point out, the deficit has been reduced by a quarter since the Coalition took power. But now that record is in peril. Persistently low growth, and the shuddering effect that has on tax receipts, has meant that public sector net borrowing has been higher than anticipated. And it’s got to the point where it could even be higher in this fiscal year than it was in the last. The set of Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that accompanied the Autumn Statement had borrowing falling between 2011-12 and 2012-13, but only just – from £121.6 billion in to £120.3 billion – and that was predicated on a windfall from the 4G auction that didn’t materialise. It will be a close-run thing.

The Big Question is whether this will mean that Mr Osborne breaks his other fiscal rule: to have the structural deficit – i.e. the part of the deficit that persists when the economy is working as it should – down to naught within five years. Again, he’s managed to meet this so far, but the timeframe keeps being pushed back. Here’s the relevant graph (and here, incidentally, is a post I wrote detailing both of the fiscal rules):

Graph 1

If it is pushed back into a sixth year from now, then both of Mr Osborne’s fiscal rules will have been broken – at least for the time being.

If borrowing rises, or if a fiscal rule is broken, Ed Balls will be delighted to the point of madness. Labour’s main fiscal problem is that, whatever they say, it’s been calculated that they would have borrowed around £200 billion more in this Parliament than the Coalition is set to. This problem will remain whatever the figures reveal tomorrow, but Mr Balls will hope to confuse the issue by pointing to rising year-on-year borrowing under Mr Osborne. “We’d borrow more, you’re borrowing more – what’s the difference?” will be his implicit and misleading message. And, as he made explicit at the weekend, he’ll try to argue that Labour’s borrowing would deliver growth.

2. Growth (or the lack of it). Speaking of growth, what will the latest Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts be? So far, they’ve been a case of diminishing returns: every time we return to them, they seem to have diminished, as this graph shows:

Graph 2

And this inglorious trend looks likely to continue tomorrow. The OBR’s growth forecasts for the next few years are still more optimistic than those put forward by other soothsayers. The papers are already reporting that they’ll be revised downwards once again.

And it’s not just annual growth: the OBR forecasts quarterly growth too, so we’ll find out whether they think a triple-dip is more likely than not.

3. The size of the envelope. George Osborne has already strayed into the fog of the post-2015 future – the Autumn Statement, for instance, contained fiscal forecasts going into 2017-18. But the Chancellor’s steps are going to become firmer tomorrow. As he announced last week, the Budget will reveal the ‘spending envelope’ that this summer’s Spending Review will have to occupy.

Depending on how much information is given, we’ll be able to use this to estimate how much each government department will be cut by in 2015-16. In fact, the Institute for Fiscal Studies already did this after the Autumn Statement. They figured that non-protected departments could be whittled down by an average 3.2 per cent in the year following the election, under Coalition plans.

These IFS figures could be raised or lowered tomorrow, depending on everything from forecasts for welfare spending to the level of debt interest. But it’s worth remembering that they remain guesswork, not least because they make assumptions about which departments will be spared from cuts, and other policy decisions. We will only know for sure on 26th June.

4. The A-word. As it was with Cameron’s address to the Conservative spring forum, expect it to be with George Osborne’s Budget speech: “aspiration” will come up a lot, whether explicitly or implicitly. Today affords us a preview of this, with the launch of a new childcare voucher for working families – but we can guess at some of the other specifics, too. As the Sun suggested on Sunday, the Chancellor is likely to put affordable housing at the heart of the Budget. He’ll probably also freeze fuel duty for this year. And, perhaps most significant, he could at last raise the income tax threshold to £10,000, the level that the Coalition Agreement aspired to. I touched on the politics of this last one in a recent post.

5. Bricks and mortar. There will be homes, but will the construction industry be set on other infrastructure projects, too? Mr Osborne increased infrastructure spending by £5 billion in the Autumn Statement, on the grounds that building means jobs means growth. But there are plenty of calls, from Vince Cable to the CBI, for him to go further this time around. And what if he does? The main question – besides what sort of infrastructure – will be how it’s funded. There is, as we know, not much cash swilling around, and some of the policies listed above already look relatively pricey. Will the Chancellor come up with some clever private finance scheme? Or will he do what Mr Cable has recommended under cover of an open question in the New Statesman, and just borrow more money? That would hardly be good for the deficit, but – returning to point 1 again – if the fiscal rule is to be broken anyway, perhaps Mr Osborne will be of a different mind now.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.