Amid all the bluster of his overheated response, the shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, got one thing almost right. There was, he said, nothing new in George Osborne's Autumn Statement. There were reasons for that, not least the fact that, one way or another, so much had already been released. And the few surprises the Chancellor did spring were, for the most part, modestly positive: figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility predicting that the economy would probably not – contrary to the latest OECD forecast – dip into recession; the delay in the rise in fuel duty; and the increase of many benefits in line with inflation.
So much for the good – or, to be more accurate, the mildly better – news. The rest was almost uniformly bad, especially for employees in the public sector. As many as 300,000 more jobs are likely to go; the current pay freeze will be followed by a 1 per cent cap on pay rises for another two years. And, in a move that could prompt a new battle with trade unions down the line, Mr Osborne broached a review of the effect of national public sector pay rates on regional labour markets. The concern is valid, but it is not one calculated to improve his relations with the public sector.
The reason for Mr Osborne's focus on the public sector, of course, is clear: he has precious few other options for reining in spending. With indebtedness running ahead of previous forecasts and growth running far behind, he has to find money to divert into the infrastructure projects that are the rediscovered remedy for rising unemployment and stagnant growth. Private investment will not be enough.
In highlighting a national infrastructure plan, and reeling off a string of projects to be brought forward, Mr Osborne was on the right lines, as he was when he spoke of encouraging pension funds and individual savers to invest in these projects. Interest rates elsewhere are currently so low – and Mr Osborne undertook yesterday to keep them that way – that this could become an attractive option for savers.
The Chancellor is right, too, to make education a priority. The additional free nursery places announced yesterday may be dismissed as a rather desperate effort to woo disenchanted women voters, but providing jobs – especially jobs for lower-skilled young men – has to be a key to growth, as does improving the work-readiness of school-leavers. There would be further merit in requiring companies tendering for these projects to recruit a significant proportion of their workforce through apprenticeships – real apprenticeships to train young people in marketable skills.
The Government's difficulty is that major infrastructure works are long-term endeavours whose results will be apparent only over time; the same is true of improving the quality of schools. Such a timescale, however, fails to reflect the sense of urgency and common purpose that is so essential to boosting public confidence in the here and now.
Which is where Mr Osborne most conspicuously fell short yesterday. For while the OBR forecasts show the British economy to be performing well compared with the economies of the eurozone countries, separately and together, this is more a reflection of the dire circumstances prevailing there than it is of any superiority here. Not only that, but Mr Osborne could not exclude the possibility of drastically worse indicators for the UK in future, up to and including a return to recession, if – say – the eurozone crisis took an unforeseen turn for the even worse.
With many more public sector job losses on the cards, and a return to stable growth and the elimination of the structural deficit both now pushed beyond the term of this parliament, Mr Osborne's message to his hard-pressed fellow citizens boiled down to little more than the stoical injunction to keep calm and carry on.