I want to develop a point that was made by Mr Clarke, who said that for many people the Budget was actually a pleasant surprise—it has promised them tax cuts and spending increases—but that in doing so the Chancellor is taking a big risk with an economy that is not particularly strong. It is not particularly strong because, as the Treasury forecast shows, the growth rate looking forward is abysmal—it is about 1.5%, which is one of the worst in the developed world—and that is quite apart from the poor growth at the moment.
The growth rate is also based on a fundamentally optimistic assumption. Quite apart from the lag on growth caused by Brexit at the moment, the assumption in the Treasury forecast is that the Government will land a deal, and not just a deal but a good deal, with a smooth transition to a trading arrangement not greatly different from the present. Well, it might happen—pigs might fly—but it is optimistic and, if that expectation is not realised, the economy has very little resilience. We have very high public debt, as the Government acknowledged. The domestic savings ratio is appalling—I think it is the worst in the developed world and is now negative. The corporate sector is heavily leveraged, as Governor Carney pointed out the other day. All of this is reflected in the current account deficit, forecast to be 4% of GDP, which is one of the worst in the developed world. If something goes wrong, there is no longer an inflow of capital and the exchange rate falls; we have had a devaluation of 17% since the referendum and we will have another one.
The main criticism I have of the Budget is that it may have seemed comforting, but the Chancellor did not actually confront the real issue that we have to face: how do we have a mature debate about how to end austerity? That is going to involve people paying more tax, and the issue is how we do it, and how we do it in the fairest and most efficient way. As Mr Betts has pointed out, we have not really got to the end of austerity, or even to the beginning of the end of it.
For most parts of public spending, there is a continued squeeze. That is true of schools. We did partially protect them under the coalition, but that is no longer happening. Colleges, which are necessary to deliver the Government’s training and apprenticeships, have been cut to pieces. Local government is potentially in an appalling situation. That means a squeeze on social care, which means that the money going to the health service will be wasted because it will have to accommodate lots of elderly people who should be at home. Bankrupt councils, many of them Tory county councils, will be forced to raise council tax, so we will get a tax increase, but it will be a tax increase by stealth, rather than by confronting the matter openly.