Published:

By Peter Hoskin
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OSborne

That
rush of air you just felt was from Downing Street, breathing out a collective “phew”.
And the reason why? This morning’s public finance statistics from the Office
for National Statistics – rounding off the financial year 2012-13 – have
government borrowing falling from the previous year. But only just. The
government borrowed £120.9 billion in 2011-12, once various distortive financial
effects are excluded. And it borrowed £120.6 billion in 2012-13. That’s a difference
of only £300 million, so again: phew.

Of
course, fiscally speaking, that £300 million is next to meaningless. Borrowing
could have been £300 billion higher than last year – and it might turn out to
be, given that the ONS tends to revise its original figures; and, indeed, it
was today on some
measures
 – and the overall picture still would have been the same. The
Government has basically borrowed the same amount of money for two years in a
row. It’s all very different from what was expected three years ago, when the
Treasury was working on an assumption of 2.9 per cent growth in 2013.

But
politically, of course, that £300 million makes all the difference. Having “public
sector net borrowing” declining year-on-year is not one of George Osborne’s
fiscal rules, but it has been part of his promise. His opponents will not be
able to accuse him of borrowing more than he was last year – at least for the
time being.


As
it happens, something similar could be said in anticipation of this week’s
growth figures. The expectation amongst economic soothsayers is that the
economy will have grown by 0.1 per cent in the first quarter of the year. If
that turns out to be true, then it would mean that Britain is basically flat-lining.
But it would also mean that no-one would be able to charge Mr Osborne with
presiding over a triple-dip. The politics, in this case, are far less
fractional than the numbers behind them.

But
this doesn’t mean that the Chancellor’s immediate political concerns will be over
should he avoid a return to recession, just as he avoided an increase in
borrowing today. No, his opponents – both inside and outside the Tory party –
are far too tenacious for that. Just look at this
story
in today’s Daily Mail. One “senior backbencher” tells the paper that “even
if we avoid a triple dip there aren’t many people who believe it is going to
turn around in the autumn.” Another warns, “there should be a steadier and more
mature hand on the tiller.”

Myself,
I don’t think the Tory discontents will achieve much with their attacks on
George Osborne. As I said in an article
for the Times (£)
last year, when the grumbling first came into public
earshot, the Chancellor is too bound up with the Coalition’s economic plan to be
cast aside now. And besides, with coalition government being like it is, there’s
little reason to believe that a replacement would be able to do things
differently. You can put any hand on the tiller, and it would still have to
steer a course determined in the consultation with the Lib Dems.

Surely
the backbenchers know all this, though, which is why I suspect their attacks on
Mr Osborne are actually attacks on David Cameron – and on the Coalition itself
– by proxy. And this is why Downing Street ought to take them seriously. No
doubt growth would help make things better, but so might something like the “big,
open, comprehensive offer” I wrote about in a
ConservativeHome column
in November.

For
his part, the Chancellor certainly seems to be taking a different approach. He
has been more
visible and punchier
recently, and he’s continued that today with an appearance on the Today
Programme
and an attack on the economics of Scottish independence. And, as
his last Budget showed, he is also tending more towards pub-ready policies
that may not fix the macro-economy but which are popular with voters. As Tim
Montgomerie put it last
month
, “Plan A for deficit reduction is on the back burner and plan B(eer)
for re-election is underway.”

Which
is why today’s
hints about fuel duty
are also worth noting. The Tory leadership is
preparing for a “living standards election”. At least more can be done on that
front than if it was a “borrowing and growth election”.

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