Budget watchdog very unlikely to reassure Truss and Kwarteng in emergency talks

Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng will hold a meeting with the head of the Office of Budget Responsibility Richard Hughes today. Credit: PA

The Truss and Kwarteng excuse for refusing to allow the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) to mark its mini budget homework - as expressed by Treasury financial secretary Andrew Griffith - is that their growth plan was only half formed.

It would have been wrong, they say, to ask the fiscal watchdog to give a verdict on how high and unsustainably the deficit would rise until it could judge how and whether their plans to reform childcare, crack down on trade unions, speed up infrastructure delivery, create special investment zones and so on would affect the underlying growth rate of the economy.

For what it’s worth, the OBR will bend over backwards to give them the benefit of the doubt on all this, but it will be unable to significantly increase its forecast of growth for the economy on the basis of these putative structural reforms, because of lack of empirical evidence they’ll achieve all that much and because of reasonable doubts about execution risk.

All the available evidence is that boosting the sustainable growth rate takes many years, absent fixes like opening the doors wide to immigration - which for a Brexit-loving government is presumably politically impossible.

The OBR’s delayed verdict, which in preliminary form will be delivered to the Treasury at the end of next week, and in final form at the end of October, will not provide Truss and Kwarteng with much reassurance.

And in the meantime they are caught in an agonizing vice of contradictory pressures. On the one hand, they have to reassure markets the deficit will not spiral out of control - hence the instruction to Cabinet ministers to find savings largely by cutting headcount and their refusal to commit to increase the state pension and benefits in line with 10% inflation.

But this looks and feels like hated austerity to millions of voters, who the polls show are deserting the Tories in panic-stricken legions. It is very difficult to see how Truss and Kwarteng re-establish their economic credibility without reinforcing Labour’s significant lead in the opinion polls.

One thing’s for certain: any talk of an early general election is for the birds. Truss has to play it as long as possible, even conceivably delaying the poll till the cold and dark winter of late 2024, and pray for some kind of external intervention, such as an end to the Ukraine war, that might bail out the economy and her.

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