George Osborne
George Osborne's austerity programme is set to last until 2018 as the UK economy worsens (Reuters)

It was the incumbent Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable who mockingly told the House of Commons that the then Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown had gone from looking like Stalin to Mr Bean, but two years since his party and Conservatives formed the coalition government the very same insult could be thrown back at his own colleague, Chancellor George Osborne.

For much like Stalin's preposterous production targets in his five year plans, Osborne set his own unrealistic goal, based on the narcissistic arrogance that is a prerequisite of Bullingdon Club membership, of bringing debt down as a percentage of GDP by 2015.

Not only this, but he promised his austerity axe would be blunted by the beginning of the next parliament, having chopped public spending enough to erase the deficit and bring the nation's finances back under control.

However from 2011's autumn statement, Osborne started his very own descent from assured dictator to hapless caricature.

A double-dip recession, budget u-turns, slashed forecasts, and now the inevitable failure to meet his own target - who sets targets they can't meet? - have been a series of political calamities befitting the bumbling Mr Bean.

With a worsening outlook for the British economy and an ever-lengthening period of austerity - potentially £11bn worth of public spending cuts more than Osborne had previously planned for - the chancellor's position at the Treasury looks close to untenable.

When he delivers the 5 December autumn statement, Osborne is only able to send out one signal to the British public: I have failed.

His unrealistic debt target will be at worst scrapped and at best altered. Both situations mean he cannot meet his original goal.

Alternatively he can ignore it, but that will do nothing for his credibility and his critics, of whom there are many, are unlikely to let him get away with that.

More austerity, with a cocktail of spending cuts and tax rises, are likely. Neither of which are popular with voters or businesses, both of whom rely on public spending in one form or another and do not want more of their money taken away by the State.

To be fair to Osborne, he may have his mucky hands on the British economy, but he holds no grip on what is happening elsewhere.

Slowing growth in key emerging markets has hurt UK exports, as has the eurozone crisis which has dented both consumer and business confidence. Volatile commodity prices have also sent prices up, and there is uncertainty over the future.

However, all of these external factors have been compounded by Osborne's staunch position on austerity at home, underpinned by support from his Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, which has rubbed salt into Britain's economic wounds.

The private sector necessitates public investment. Private firms need public sector contracts; they need a population with decent jobs earning proper wages giving them the gainful employment security and disposable income; they need the certainty and commitment of state investment to make long-term spending decisions that create more jobs and growth.

Withdrawing so much public money, at such speed, has pulled the rug from underneath businesses.

Evidence of exactly this can be seen in the construction sector, which has been torn down as public money evaporates. Its collapsing output was one of the major catalysts behind Britain tumbling into the longest double-dip recession since the Second World War.

Not many deny the need to tackle the deficit and that the bloated public sector was in desperate need of streamlining, but this could have been a long-term programme designed to strip out waste and eliminate inefficiency, with the savings used to bring down the deficit.

It would have spared the public and businesses the gruelling, gratuitous austerity regime Osborne is overseeing and the damage to the economy it is doing.

National debt is up and will probably rise further, tax receipts are down because of the austerity-triggered recession, confidence is low because of the government's depressive rhetoric over the economy, and the country's outlook is worsening because of a number of macroeconomic storm clouds looming on the horizon.

There is even talk of a triple-dip recession.

With Osborne's autumn statement set to admit defeat on one of his key economic targets, as well as being forced to announce deeper cuts to the public purse in what will be perceived as another economic failing, doubts over his chancellorship will grow.

Voices calling for him to go could spread further than just the chorus of predictable Labour party shills, with some on his own backbenches apparently concerned that he is mishandling the economy.

Polls show that the British public are growing increasingly sick of the austerity medicine, to steal Osborne's original metaphor for his programme of cuts, and the economy has reacted badly to the government's brand of elixir.

To hear news of more cuts, more pain and more of the same from Osborne may push the public to call for a second opinion from another doctor.

The problem for Cameron, though, is that to get rid of his chancellor would be to admit that the foundations on which his government has been built - strict austerity to restore "fiscal credibility" - have crumbled.

Labour would be gifted a huge political club with which to wallop the coalition government and could well cost the Tories the next election.

However, to keep Osborne in place would also have a similar effect. It would show the coalition to be dogmatic, inadaptable to changing situations, and Cameron as a weak leader who does not have the power to throw out ministers below him.

If Cameron were to lance the boil early in 2013, it would give him enough time to rehabilitate the party's austerity doom-bringers image before the next election.

The government would also be able to, under a new chancellor, adjust its economic policy to loosen the austerity programme and allow for more fiscal stimulus, with the subsequent growth revenues used to bring down the deficit.

A fiscal boost and more positivity from a government that has been overwhelmingly negative in how it talks about the economy would bolster business and consumer confidence, itself a stimulant for growth.

Despite the inevitable bad news awaiting Britons in Osborne's autumn statement, there is one piece of good news to take away - it may be his last.
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This article was updated November 30, -0001 00:00 AM
OPINION