The Autumn Statement showed that George Osborne has failed to grasp the gravity of the economic crisis facing the UK. Urgent action was needed to brace the economy for double-dip recession and the fallout from the euro crisis. Instead, the chancellor announced a big increase in government borrowing, together with a series of measures that, while attractive to key groups of target voters, will do little to encourage growth.
Worse still, collapsing growth means the government’s deficit reduction plan is now in tatters. Government borrowing has been increased by £110bn over the next four years, meaning a staggering £350bn added to the national debt.
This may in fact be a best-case scenario. The Office for Budget Responsibility predicts slow growth of 0.7 per cent in 2012 but then assumes a healthy recovery, with growth rising to 2.1 per cent in 2013, 2.7 per cent in 2014 and a robust 3.0 per cent in 2015. But given the severity of the euro crisis, high levels of public and private debt, and the possibility of a downturn in overheated emerging markets, it is equally plausible that Britain will go into recession next year, followed by several years of stagnation.
A wise chancellor would be preparing for such a scenario. Vague talk of contingency plans does not pass muster.
A double-dip recession would decimate tax revenues while adding to welfare spending through higher unemployment. If UK GDP were just five per cent lower than predicted in 2015, for example, this would reduce the annual tax take by around £35bn.
Under such circumstances, with the budget deficit remaining unsustainably high, the chancellor cannot assume that the UK will retain investor confidence and continue to pay very low interest rates on its debt. With high debt and low growth there may be little to separate Britain from the struggling economies in the rest of Europe, such as Spain and Italy.
Given the severity of the potential risks, Osborne should have had the courage to announce further cuts – at least enough to return the deficit reduction plan to its original trajectory. He should also have taken far bolder steps to encourage growth, through radical deregulation and by rationalising the tax system.
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