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Thursday, March 21, 2013 

The depression must continue. And continue.

The usual way budgets pan is out that they begin to fall apart the day after.  Last year, Osborne's wheezes were so shambolic and leaked so thoroughly beforehand that it was clear on the day what a disaster it was.  This year we've had the spectacle of the chancellor himself making clear just how the figures were fixed to meet his objective.

Osborne then admitted this morning as was suggested yesterday that he had specifically asked departments to underspend so he could still meet his aim of reducing borrowing year on year.  As the IFS has since made clear, the underspend in total was £10.9bn (PDF), more than double the average of the last five years.  This includes a £2.2bn underspend on the NHS, further giving the lie to the claim from Cameron that spending on the health service is rising in real terms.

This is the kind of manoeuvring that during Gordon Brown's time as chancellor would have resulted in the Tories and the right-wing press throwing a fit.  The IFS sums up the aim of reducing borrowing year on year as "economically unimportant" which it is, but that spending time and effort to achieve it "could have had real economic costs".  In other words, Osborne would rather be proved right about the politics than the economics, which is just about as brutal a criticism of a chancellor as the IFS is likely to make.

Incredibly, it gets worse.  The IFS also forecasts that to fill the hole created by the various giveaways yesterday, come 2016 we face even more cuts, or more likely, significant tax rises. As spending on the NHS, education and international aid is due to remain protected till at least then, this puts all the more pressure on the other departments, and it's difficult to see how welfare won't be raided again.  Pledging to protect certain departments may have been good politics originally, but it's exceptionally daft now that budgets are falling in real terms anyway.

All this only underlines what a disaster Osborne's tenure has been. The inheritance the next government can look forward to will be even worse than the one the coalition had in 2010, when there were plenty of alternative policies that could have been pursued. The options available are either tax rises, when wages will still not have recovered, or cuts across the board.  As none of the parties are likely to make clear just how unpleasant these choices will be, the next government is bound to be unpopular from the very start as they are forced to row back on election promises.  And all because of Osborne's continuing refusal to change his mind when the facts have.

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