The IMF has no credibility in forecasting the UK economy

George Osborne has, in effect, already resorted to Plan B, because his policies are not working.

Yesterday, the IMF cut its 2011 growth forecast for the UK to 1.5 per cent but said that the government's economic policy was going along swimmingly. The Chancellor seemed to be really pleased about this endorsement. But Slasher didn't seem to notice that the IMF argued that the risks to their forecasts were "significant".

Sadly, the UK economy did not grow at all over the past six months. Consumer confidence has collapsed; business confidence is weakening; employment growth has slowed sharply; house prices are falling and the number of mortgage approvals is falling; business lending is down and there remain real risks of deflation, which I guess John Lipsky, acting head of the IMF, hasn't spotted. Over the weekend, 50 economists did spot the problem and wrote to the Observer about it. The Cabinet Office's ex-chief economist Jonathan Portes and Vicky Price, ex-head of the Government Economic Service, warned that the economy was slowing, as did Tim Besley and John Muellbauer, who had previously signed a letter in the Times supporting the government's now failing strategy. The new economics Nobel laureate, Chris Pissarides, who was also a signatory to the Times letter, also told me in an exclusive interview published in the New Statesman this week that his preferred action now is for a postponement of fiscal contraction. Growth is nowhere to be seen and the government has no plan to fix this.

The Chancellor's claim that his strategy was always flexible because of the use of automatic stabilisers amounted to an announcement of Plan B. As growth slows and unemployment rises, as it surely will, then the payments to unemployment benefits in particular start to rise. This is plainly an announcement that the speed at which the deficit is paid off will inevitably have to be slower than he had previously announced, because his policies are not working -- as I have frequently warned.

Plus, if, or more likely when, the economy starts declining further, the government would have to cut taxes and do more quantitative easing. Hence Vince Cable, Osborne and now the IMF have endorsed Adam Posen's and my long-held views: that there is a possiblity of a slow, Japanese-type recovery, hence the need for another round of asset purchases: ie Plan C.

I was particularly interested to look back to 6 August 2008, when the IMF also lowered its growth forecast for the UK economy.

The IMF predicted that the UK would grow by 1.4 per cent in 2008 and 1.1 per cent in 2009, down from the 1.8 per cent for 2008 and 1.7 per cent for 2009 that it predicted in of 2008. It said inflation at 3.8 per cent was higher than expected and inflation expectations were rising, even as economic activity was slowing. That, the IMF said, meant the Bank of England had little room to cut rates. It didn't exactly turn out that way. In August 2008, the IMF didn't even spot that the UK economy had entered recession in April that year. The IMF has no credibility in forecasting the UK economy.

Osborne has already turned, as the economy is slowing even before the public spending cuts hit. The government's economic strategy is in disarray, no matter which of Osborne's pals he gets to say otherwise.

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

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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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