A short walk from parliament is a monument to one of our greatest naval commanders, Nelson, who died fighting Napoleon 200 years ago in a war fought on borrowed money.At times of conflict and crisis, governments take on debt.The Government today is borrowing at levels last seen when Britain was at war.Coronavirus has triggered the deepest recession we have experienced in modern history. The damage it has caused is hideous.The Government has spent extraordinary sums supporting households, businesses and public services. Tax receipts have slumped, borrowing has exploded.Back in March the chancellor was expecting to borrow £55bn this year. Two lockdowns later and he’s now on course to borrow almost £400bn - 19% of our national income - the highest level of borrowing as a share of GDP since 1944.
In four years time the government is still forecast to be spending £100bn more than it has coming in.The Office for Budget Responsibility has decided that Covid-19 has permanently damaged the economy, which it predicts will be 3% smaller in 2025 than was expected in March. The chancellor says he wants to balance books. To do that the OBR calculates he’ll have to fill a hole in the public finances of up to £30bn.This was a Spending Review and the chancellor has pledged more money for public services. There will be an extra £15 billion of non-Covid funding next year. Although that’s £10bn less than was promised in March.
Most of it will go to defence, the NHS, social care and schools in England, which doesn’t leave a lot left over for everything else. The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates some government departments - including Justice, Work and Pensions, the Cabinet Office - will be worse off as a result. Austerity is supposed to be over. The OBR calculates that if restrictions remain in place until the spring and an effective vaccine programme is rolled out from the middle of next year then the economy will return to its pre-crisis size by the end of 2022.But it still expects another one million people to become unemployed in the next few months.
The chancellor has called this an “economic emergency”. The OBR warned it will get even worse if there’s a No Deal Brexit at the end of the year.“In our forecast we provide an alternative scenario which assumes that the government and the EU don’t arrive at free trade agreement and we end up trading on WTO terms,“ Richard Hughes, the chair of the OBR, told ITV News. “We assume that reduces GDP by about 2% every year for the next five years and increases government borrowing by £10 billion.”Broadly speaking, the OBR assesses the long-term economic “hit” caused by no deal to be of the same magnitude as that of Covid (a fall in long-term output of 2% versus a fall in long-term output of 3%). This will hopefully focus minds in trade negotiations.The money borrowed to fight the First World War took 100 years to repay. The financial legacy of Covid will also be long-lasting.Our national debt is high and rising but interest rates remain very low. Let’s hope they stay low.