Osborne has stolen Margaret Thatcher's 1980s manual

My conversation with Ed Balls.

I spent much of yesterday marshalling my own thoughts on the consequences of the latest GDP figures (here is the link to my column) -- not good, since you are asking. In the course of the day, I managed to speak with shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, about his views on the data and, more generally, on the coalition's economic strategy.

Ed was on robust form as ever and I thought I'd share some of his insights below. I can't do better than to quote him verbatim.

The outgoing head of the CBI, Richard Lambert, captured it well when he said: "Politics appears to have trumped economics on too many occasions over the past eight months." There is no doubt that George Osborne is a highly skilled political strategist. But he is making the classic mistake of the past 100 years in believing that you can impose a political strategy on the British economy. Cutting too far and too fast may make political sense for the Tories but it simply isn't working economically.

He then went on to suggest that this has all been drawn directly from Margaret Thatcher's playbook.

The political strategy he is implementing is straight out of Margaret Thatcher's 1980s manual: impose as much pain as you can straight after the election, raise taxes, cut spending, slash benefits, make people feel lucky to have a job, build up your war chest and then cut taxes just before the election, hope to win a majority and start all over again.

He is following Mrs. Thatcher's strategy to the letter -- right down to the immediate hike in VAT, even if it breaks a pre-election promise. But this strategy is irresponsible and dangerous. Two decades ago, our country paid a very high price because of the economic mistakes of the 1980s recession and the years of slow growth and rising unemployment that followed. Manufacturing capacity was lost permanently. A whole generation of young people saw their lives blighted by long-term unemployment.

Our society was divided, child poverty soared and our infrastructure decayed. Today, we see policies that are hitting women harder than men -- and hitting families with children hardest of all. A standard-of-living squeeze, which will choke off growth. And we have seen growth flatline in the past six months, compared to growth of 1.8 per cent in the previous six months, before George Osborne tore up Labour's plan to get the deficit down in a steadier way.

You can't get the deficit down without strong growth, with people in work and paying taxes. So when I hear Osborne refuse even to countenance the idea of putting jobs and growth first, I can see no economic judgement at work at all -- just a political gamble with the nation's economy.

The shadow chancellor's comments stand in sharp contrast to the Treasury's bizarre claim, repeated by Osborne and Cameron, that the data release was "good news", as the economy had "returned to growth", when it clearly has not. It's a strange old world when the only "positive" news that could be found was that sterling strengthened against the dollar and the euro, because some in the markets had priced in an even worse outcome. There are likely to be even worse days ahead.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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The three avoidable mistakes that Theresa May has made in the Brexit negotiations

She ignored the official Leave campaign, and many Remainers, in pursuing Brexit in the way she has.

We shouldn’t have triggered Article 50 at all before agreeing an exit deal

When John Kerr, the British diplomat who drafted Article 50 wrote it, he believed it would only be used by “a dictatorial regime” that, having had its right to vote on EU decisions suspended “would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out”.

The process was designed to maximise the leverage of the remaining members of the bloc and disadvantage the departing state. At one stage, it was envisaged that any country not ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be expelled under the process – Article 50 is not intended to get “the best Brexit deal” or anything like it.

Contrary to Theresa May’s expectation that she would be able to talk to individual member states, Article 50 is designed to ensure that agreement is reached “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”, as I wrote before the referendum result.

There is absolutely no reason for a departing nation to use Article 50 before agreement has largely been reached. A full member of the European Union obviously has more leverage than one that is two years away from falling out without a deal. There is no reason to trigger Article 50 until you’re good and ready, and the United Kingdom’s negotiating team is clearly very far from either being “good” or “ready”.

As Dominic Cummings, formerly of Vote Leave, said during the campaign: “No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what the process was going to yield…that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

If we were going to trigger Article 50, we shouldn’t have triggered it when we did

As I wrote before Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, 2017 is very probably the worst year you could pick to start leaving the European Union. Elections across member states meant the bloc was in a state of flux, and those elections were always going to eat into the time. 

May has got lucky in that the French elections didn’t result in a tricky “co-habitation” between a president of one party and a legislature dominated by another, as Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a majority for his new party, République en Marche.

It also looks likely that Angela Merkel will clearly win the German elections, meaning that there won’t be a prolonged absence of the German government after the vote in September.

But if the British government was determined to put the gun in its own mouth and pull the trigger, it should have waited until after the German elections to do so.

The government should have made a unilateral offer on the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom right away

The rights of the three million people from the European Union in the United Kingdom were a political sweet spot for Britain. We don’t have the ability to enforce a cut-off date until we leave the European Union, it wouldn’t be right to uproot three million people who have made their lives here, there is no political will to do so – more than 80 per cent of the public and a majority of MPs of all parties want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – and as a result there is no plausible leverage to be had by suggesting we wouldn’t protect their rights.

If May had, the day she became PM, made a unilateral guarantee and brought forward legislation guaranteeing these rights, it would have bought Britain considerable goodwill – as opposed to the exercise of fictional leverage.

Although Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s proposal on mutually shared rights has worried many EU citizens, the reality is that, because British public opinion – and the mood among MPs – is so sharply in favour of their right to remain, no one buys that the government won’t do it. So it doesn’t buy any leverage – while an early guarantee in July of last year would have bought Britain credit.

But at least the government hasn’t behaved foolishly about money

Despite the pressure on wages caused by the fall in the value of the pound and the slowdown in growth, the United Kingdom is still a large and growing economy that is perfectly well-placed to buy the access it needs to the single market, provided that it doesn’t throw its toys out of the pram over paying for its pre-agreed liabilities, and continuing to pay for the parts of EU membership Britain wants to retain, such as cross-border policing activity and research.

So there’s that at least.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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