Danny Alexander: we won't spend a penny more

Uneasy cabinet minister denies plans for an extra £5bn of capital spending.

With everyone from George Osborne downwards now acknowledging that growth this year will be weaker-than-expected, an argument has restarted in government about how best to stimulate the economy. Last night, the BBC's Nick Robinson reported that some cabinet ministers were agitating for an extra £5bn in capital spending, to be channelled towards the nation's roads, rail and broadband internet.

Naturally, Robinson didn't name names, but I draw your attention to comments made by Chris Huhne at a fringe event at the Lib Dem conference on Monday night. "Remember ... the target that we have is the structural current balance," the Energy Secretary said. "It is current not capital spending. That is an important distinction." In other words, the government could ramp up capital spending without breaching its fiscal mandate: to eliminate the structural deficit (the part of the deficit that remains even once when the economy has returned to normal growth) and to ensure a falling debt-to-GDP ratio by the end of the parliament. Huhne has since insisted that he doesn't recognise the £5bn figure and that there is "no such plan". As the great Claud Cockburn once quipped, "never believe anything until has been officially denied".

Whoever the culprit was (and Vince Cable uttered the s-word - stimulus - several times in his speech), they were swiftly squashed by the Treasury. "We have our spending plans and we are sticking to them," a spokesman said.

Appearing on the Today programme this morning, an uneasy sounding Danny Alexander stuck to the script. The government would "strain every sinew" to promote growth but it would not spend a penny more then the limits set out in the Spending Review. "We have set out plans on capital spending, we're going to stick to those plans across the board on spending," the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said. He added: "I just don't recognise the numbers involved or the process as described."

It was Chris Huhne who previously suggested that the cuts could be scaled back in the event of a serious downturn, and who declared that he was not "lashed to the mast" of deficit reduction. But Alexander certainly is. As growth continues to fall and unemployment continues to rise, this is one argument that will not go away.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump