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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

0800 7318496