The truth about Mervyn King

A new political cult forms.

"Who would have guessed in late 2007 or early 2008 that an answer to the banking crisis would be to hand more power to Mervyn King?" asks the Guardian's Nils Pratley. King has long been admired in Tory circles and so George Osborne's decision to give the Bank of England the linchpin role in regulating the UK's financial sector came as no real surprise.

I'm no fan of Merv. I think he long ago politicised and abused his position. Remember his public objection to the Labour government's fiscal stimulus? Remember his public approval for the coalition's deficit reduction plan?

He also has rather poor judgement. My colleague Professor David Blanchflower, a former external member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee and one of the few economists to see the crash coming, outlined King's failures in a devastating piece for the NS in September 2009 ("The story from the inside").

Blanchflower wrote:

So why did the committee get it so wrong? From my perspective, it was hobbled by "group think" -- or the "tyranny of the consensus". Governor Mervyn King, the old iron fist of the Bank of England, with his hawkish views on rates, dominated the MPC. Short shrift was given to alternative, dovish views such as mine. I focused on the empirical data suggesting Britain was heading for recession; Mervyn and the rest of the committee focused on their theoretical models and the (invisible) threat of inflation. In fact, the Bank of England may more suitably be called "the Bank of Economic Theory". Unfortunately, the economic theories failed just when we needed them most.

He added:

Clever as Mervyn King may be, he missed the crash and the subsequent recession, and hence, so did the consensual MPC on which I sat. In August 2008, the MPC's quarterly Inflation Report did not even contain the word "recession"; it saw the economy standing still over the next year. I very nearly quit the committee at that point. In an interview that month with Reuters, I called the forecast "wishful thinking". Mervyn called me into his office to admonish me for that one.

Blanchflower also criticised King's obsession with so-called moral hazard:

We were not told what was happening to British banks such as Northern Rock, Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds, Bradford & Bingley or Alliance & Leicester. Or to US banks such as Lehman Brothers or Bear Stearns. We weren't kept in the loop, but we should have been. With hindsight, Mervyn King's focus on moral hazard -- the idea that banks are encouraged to take more risks because they know they will be bailed out -- was a huge mistake.

He reminds us of King's unforgivable failure to foresee the explosion in unemployment:

In the summer of 2008, I warned the Commons Treasury select committee that "something horrible" was going to happen. I was becoming even more worried about recession, and in September I voted alone, as ever, for a cut of 50 basis points (bps) -- or 0.5 per cent -- to the Bank's base rate. At my September appearance before the select committee, King, who was sitting two seats from me at the time, was asked by the MP Andy Love: "On unemployment there have been some suggestions, and Mr Blanchflower has said -- and I think there are quite a lot of people out there who would agree with them -- that it may go up faster than the projections in the Inflation Report. Is that a worry to you?"King replied: "At least the Almighty has not vouchsafed to me the path of unemployment data over the next year. He may have done to Danny, but he has not done to me." To say the least, I was rather surprised.

Hail the King? I'd rather not.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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.