With borrowing still running at around £90bn a year, George Osborne will have very little money to play with tomorrow when he makes his final Autumn Statement before next May’s election.
The Chancellor has managed to find money for the NHS, flood defences and road-building schemes using a simple method: borrowing some of Gordon Brown’s old conjuring tricks – and added a few of his own.
Here are six ways in which Mr Osborne and Danny Alexander may try to pull the wool over the voters’ eyes.
This is not about household rubbish, but re-announcing popular measures that we have heard before. A £15bn road-building programme won big headlines on Monday, but was announced by David Cameron to the CBI conference last month.
2. Double counting
An old Brown habit of “announcing” projects as new when the money for them has already been allocated. A good example was the £2.3bn package of flood defences announced on Tuesday.
3. Spreading the jam
By packaging up money to be spent over several years, headlines sometimes give the impression of an immediate cash boost. The £2.3bn to be spent on flooding is part of a “£400bn national infrastructure plan” - but it will span the next six years.
4. Shuffling the money around
An old Treasury trick is to move cash from one budget heading to another and trumpeting it as new. Mr Osborne announced a £2bn boost for the NHS on Sunday. But £750m of it is being reallocated from within the existing health budget - and the rest comes from underspending by other Whitehall departments.
5. Moving the goalposts
Ministers say they have cut the annual deficit - the difference between the Government’s income and spending - by a third. Mr Osborne will probably say it will be halved by the election. But the job was supposed to have been done completely by then according to his own promises.
6. Comparing apples and pears
A useful device when talking about sensitive spending cuts. The highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies has criticised Mr Cameron for saying the Government has made £100bn of savings and has a further £25bn to go, saying he used an inconsistent definition of “savings”.