5 March 2021: The Budget provides the basis for this week’s chart, which illustrates government plans to achieve a current budget surplus to meet a new fiscal rule that hasn’t yet been formally announced but was hinted at.
The Chancellor will use a corporation tax rise and spending cuts to cut the current deficit over the next five years, but this relies on the economy recovering as expected and being able to restrain pressures on public spending.
The current deficit – the difference between receipts and expenditure excluding net investment – is expected to go from £14bn in 2019-20 to £279bn in the current financial year before falling to £172bn in 2021-22, £40bn in 2022-23, £15bn in 2023-24, £3bn in 2024-25 and just under £1bn in 2025-26 – almost, but not quite meeting the anticipated fiscal rule hinted at by Rishi Sunak in his Budget speech.
This will only be achievable if the pandemic can be brought under control so that support measures are no longer needed, in addition to depending on the strength of the economic recovery. The government will be hoping that the economic stimulus it plans to provide over the next two years will help drive that growth, with the hope of higher corporate profits to pay a higher rate of corporation tax over the rest of the period.
Despite the uncertainties around the numbers, the Chancellor felt it necessary to trim £4bn a year from public spending to get within touching distance of meeting his non-target – signalling his commitment to ‘fiscal responsibility’ and helping to achieve his other main non-target, which is to see the debt to GDP ratio start to fall after peaking at 110% of GDP in 2024. However, a number of commentators have suggested that this appears unlikely to be achievable, given both pre-existing pressures on public spending and a likely need to provide additional post-pandemic support to the NHS, social care and education in particular.
This provides a challenging context for the three-year Comprehensive Spending Review later this year, especially as the longer-term challenges facing the public finances remain unaddressed. In the nearer term though, the Chancellor will be hoping for a bigger bounce back to the economy over the summer to provide him with more room for manoeuvre in the autumn.