Mehdi Hasan: Borrowing is bad - unless Gideon's doing it

Not only has growth stalled and austerity failed but the Tories can't even win the economic argument.

As I watched the Chancellor deliver his Autumn Statement to MPs yesterday, I couldn't help but remember his 2010 conference speech in Birmingham and, in particular, this bit of the speech:

Imagine, if I were to stand up in the House of Commons in two weeks time and say: I'm cancelling the deficit plan.

I agree with Ed Miliband.

Let's delay the tough decisions.

Let's borrow more.

Let's go on adding to our debt.

Imagine if I said that.

Now imagine what would follow.

The market turmoil.

The flight of investors.

The dismay of business.

The loss of confidence.

The credit downgrade.

The sharp rise in real interest rates.

The extra debt interest.

The lost jobs. The cancelled investment. The businesses destroyed. The recovery halted.

The return of crippling economic instability.

Britain back on the brink.

Hmm. Yesterday, George Osborne stood up in the Commons to reluctantly reveal that he would indeed be borrowing more - an astonishing £158bn more than he had planned to in last October's Spending Review and an embarrassing £37bn more than the much-mocked Labour plan (or "Darling plan") to cut the deficit in half over the lifetime of this parliament (as outlined in the March 2010 budget).

The Opposition has put together these two tables below, based on yesterday's OBR figures:

OBR's forecasts for public sector net borrowing (£bn)
  2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16
November 2010 117 91 60 35 18
November 2011 127 120 100 79 53
Change since Nov 2010 +10 +29 +40 +44 +35






OBR's forecasts for public sector net borrowing (£ bn)
  2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16
June 2010 (pre-Emergency Budget) 127 106 85 71 n/a
November 2011 127 120 100 79 53
Change since before Emergency Budget 0 +14 +15 +8 n/a

 

Then there is the graph (number 2) put together by our friends at the Spectator which shows that public sector net debt, as a percentage of GPD, will be higher in 2014/2015 than it was forecast to have been under - yep, you guessed it! - the afore-mentioned Darling plan. ("We are sinking in a sea of debt," shrieked the Chancellor in his conference speech in 2009. Now we know that, despite his savage cuts, we'll still be "sinking" in an ever-greater "sea of debt" at the next election.)

So what I'm wondering is: why isn't "Britain back on the brink"? If the country was on the verge of defaulting on its debts and being downgraded by the credit rating agencies when borrowing was forecast to be lower and growth higher - under the Darling plan - back in 2009 and 2010, why don't the latest OBR figures - which also downgrade growth for the fourth (!) time since Osborne took over at the Treasury - presage financial and economic armageddon? Isn't this the best evidence for the claim by Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, that the then shadow chancellor was guilty of "scaremongering" about borrowing and debt in an interview in the New Statesman in February 2010?

Referring to Cameron and Osborne as modern-day "Hooverites", Stiglitz said:

I say you're crazy -- economically you clearly have the capacity to pay. The debt situation has been worse in other countries at other times. This is all scaremongering, perhaps linked to politics, perhaps rigged to an economic agenda, but it's out of touch with reality.

Before the Tory trolls arrive below the line to shout about bond markets, confidence and low interest rates, I don't deny Osborne's contention that "debt interest payments over the Parliament are forecast to be £22 billion less than predicted". But I do dispute his description of Britain as a "safe haven". And I ask the deficit fetishists: if low rates are a sign of economic success and market confidence, why then did Japan enjoy such low rates in the mid-90s, during its "lost decade"? Why have borrowing costs in the United States, in the aftermath of its fiscal stimulus, the failure to sign off on spending cuts and its credit-downgrade by Standard & Poors, plummeted to historic lows?

Sticking with the subject of "confidence, the eminent economist, former Tory frontbencher and biographer of Keynes, Robert Skidelsky, writes in today's Guardian:

We come to the question of confidence. The chancellor has repeatedly claimed the deficit reduction programme was, and is, necessary to maintain investor confidence in government finances. Confidence is very important, but also mysterious: the bond markets can believe a dozen contradictory things before breakfast. The main point is that confidence cannot be separated from the economy's performance. As it stalls, the creditworthiness of governments declines as their debt increases, raising the likelihood of default.

A year ago bond traders, having forgotten what little economic theory they knew, were inclined to believe that deficit reduction would in itself generate recovery. For several months the Osbornites fed them the fantasy of "expansionary fiscal contraction", the idea that as the deficit falls the economy would expand. This story is now exploded. It's the economy that determines the size of the deficit, not the deficit that determines the size of the economy.

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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.