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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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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