Newspaper headlines: Autumn Statement - dream or extreme?

This blog cannot dream of neatly summing up the many hundreds of thousands of words that the newspapers have written about Wednesday's Autumn Statement.

Image copyright Reuters

If you want detailed discussion on the measures contained in the Statement, BBC News' comprehensive in-depth section will give you all the details. This blog will aim to give you a brief flavour of how the different papers saw the event.

The Guardian is perhaps the harshest broadsheet critic of George Osborne's Statement, calling it "lean, mean and extreme".

Aditya Chakrabortty, writing the paper's front-page analysis, says the chancellor was supremely confident as he wheeled out "billion-pound distractions" to "drown out an economy that sounds like a stuck record, forever playing a refrain from 2010".

"We were doomed to repeat the last election as soon as Osborne gave up on his deficit reduction drive in 2012-13 and Labour stuck with austerity-lite. Nor have we cleared up the chronic illnesses that beset the UK economy.

"As the stamp duty cut shows, this remains a country whose erogenous zone is firmly in its property market, where a devaluation of the pound does nothing to eat away at a giant current account deficit and where the workforce is so badly paid that record employment doesn't yield enough taxes."

Larry Elliott, the paper's economics editor, imagines a Conservative administration in 2019 when "public spending has fallen to below 35%, lower than the post-war low under Macmillan in the late 1950s and back to the pre-welfare-state years when Neville Chamberlain was starting a rearmament programme".

Elliott says such cuts "will be cumulatively enormous - and almost certainly unachievable. They are certainly unachievable without putting the economy at risk".

For the Independent, Britain's other left-leaning/progressive paper, it is not what was said in the Statement, but what was unsaid that makes its headline.

Image caption Neville Chamberlain was British PM when the state last accounted for less than 35% of GDP

Calling the budget "Osborne's autumn understatement" the paper also highlights the £30bn of, as yet, unspecified cuts.

Devoting a 12-page special section to what the Statement means, each clause is carefully pored over.

Oliver Wright, the Indy's Whitehall editor, says: "In order to meet eye-wateringly tight cuts to spending over the next five years, ministers are intending to outsource swathes of services currently provided by the public sector.

"Some of these services will be contracted out to companies such as Serco and G4S, while others will become new mutual companies run by their employees."

Political columnist Steve Richards says Mr Osborne was giving two contradictory messages regarding deficit reduction, adding: "Because he failed to meet his target during the current parliament, only he is qualified to ensure the objective is met quickly in the next one."

The Daily Telegraph is - on the whole - supportive of the Conservative chancellor, as one might expect.

Its front page column comes from Allister Heath, who says the "big prize" of "a smaller state" could be within reach.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Achieving a smaller state has not always been a popular choice

He says the Statement was more about politics than economics, "designed to emphasise" a stark choice.

"On the one hand we have George Osborne... a chancellor committed to substantially lower levels of public spending and, in time, reduced taxation; on the other, the prospect of a far-left Labour government committed to taxing and controlling everything that moves."

The paper's case study-heavy coverage broadly cheers the individual measures, but within the paper commentator Peter Oborne says the chancellor "is more interested in getting re-elected than squaring the books".

He continues: "He inherited an economic crisis... patently, he has not solved it. Mr Osborne will hand on exactly the same crisis to his successor."

The Times is more equivocal in its coverage.

It says that by cutting taxes for most homebuyers, the chancellor "staked next year's election on a growing economy powered by rising property prices".

Inside the paper, it says the 30% rise in property prices that the stamp duty reforms is predicted to cause by 2020 amounts to a "stealth tax" that will "ensnare tens of thousands of homeowners".

The paper also has a 12-page Statement pull-out.

In it, former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling, while welcoming a number of the measures - particularly on infrastructure improvement - says: "If he's not careful, the chancellor's current promise to deliver a surplus by 2018 will prove as elusive as his last one.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Alistair Darling

"Without growth, we simply won't get the tax revenues we need."

In the Financial Times, economics editor Chris Giles says the Statement left not so much a $64m question but an £18bn conundrum.

This is the predicted fall in the cost of servicing the UK's £1.65tn debt by 2018-19. The conundrum is, the debt is rising, but the cost of paying for it will fall.

Giles says the reduced figure "saved the chancellor's bacon" in the Statement and surprised economists.

It comes partly from a statistical overestimate of debts in earlier forecasts but largely from low interest rates keeping the cost of government borrowing low, the FT's man explains.

"These assumptions... create big risks for Mr Osborne and future chancellors. If the global economy picks up, market interest rates will rise and that will increase the debt interest forecast," he adds.

The Daily Mail calls the stamp duty changes a "bonanza" which will "electrify" the housing market and put the "aspirations of home-owners" at the centre of the Tories' election campaign.

The paper has been widely critical of tax reduction schemes used by US-based giant companies that operate in the UK in the past, and it welcomes the so-called "Google tax" aiming to claw back some of the money such firms are not paying to the Exchequer.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Google: the big bad wolf of corporate tax avoiders, according to some commentators

The paper's city editor Alex Brummer wonders if the 25% tax on economic activity within the UK can be "made to stick", given that those in government "find the digital companies... irresistible and don't want to do anything that might upset them".

Brummer adds: "The reality is that they will continue to have a charmed existence."

Nonetheless, the paper's political commentator Simon Heffer says that, "given the constraints [Mr Osborne] was under, he did a pretty good job" in his mini-budget.

"In case anyone has forgotten, Mr Osborne isn't just Chancellor of the Exchequer: he is his party's main election strategist," Heffer adds.

"And his announcements yesterday on reforming stamp duty, raising tax thresholds, boosting infrastructure, giving £2bn more to the NHS and scrapping Air Passenger Duty for most children betrayed the fact that the key — indeed, almost the only — consideration for him now is to maximise his party's vote on May 7."

The Daily Express is one of the most enthusiastic backers of the Autumn Statement, headlining that it will provide "a cash boost for Middle Britain".

The paper's political editor Macer Hall says: "This was a typical Osborne financial statement, highly political and calculated to steal Labour's election thunder.

"It certainly worked in the Commons yesterday. While Mr Balls was not quite the flop he was a year ago he had little to say in response."

But in the main comment piece, columnist Leo McKinstry says the Statement shows "our economy is still living beyond its means".

He goes on: "Many of Osborne's expensive proposals will just worsen the debt."

The Sun is the Statement's other chief cheerleader.

Picturing Mr Osborne as Father Christmas (and Ed Miliband as Wallace from the Wallace and Gromit films) its editorial says the Statement "torpedoes Labour's claim that the Tories only help the rich".

The various measures win the endorsement of the Sun's Rochester election celebrity "White Van Dan" Ware, who says hearing his name mentioned in the speech was "surreal".

The paper acknowledges "the elephant in the room" of tackling the deficit, and cuts which could see a million public service jobs go.

Image caption Ed Miliband shows the BBC's Andrew Marr his "Wallace" smile

It notes that "experts... said even the armed forces and the fire service could suffer as the government is forced to top-up pensions".

As Labour's staunchest supporter among the national press, Mr Osborne's plans get predictable short shrift from the Daily Mirror.

The paper says the measures amount to a "new attack on welfare" which will hit "the poor and disabled" while promising "another five years of cuts misery".

The paper's comment says: "George Osborne would be on the dole if he mismanaged a private firm the way he's bungled the UK economy.

"The Tory Treasury axeman has missed every target he set himself, including deficit reduction that was the touchstone of his rule."

Its editorial page features a column from Mr Osborne's counterpart Ed Balls.

Mr Balls says that if he was in power he would balance the books in a "fairer way" - starting by reversing the 2010 reduction in income tax paid by the top 1% of earners, and making sure enough homes were built to match demand.

"George Osborne's Autumn Statement was his last before the election. Let's now make it his last one ever," he concludes.

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