Clegg’s new tone on the economy

The coalition needs to work on a climb down.

It’s not every day you open the paper to read about a cabinet minister – one who isn’t the Chancellor - holding forth about the ‘instruction’ that has been given to the Treasury on a key aspect of economic policy. Nor we should we suppose that Nick Clegg elected to give the interview to the FT only to use this line due to a slip of the tongue.  It tells us something.

The specifics are about whether the Treasury should use its ‘balance sheet’ to enable a ‘massive’ increase in infrastructure spending (on housing and transport).  The timing reflects the wider context. The last few weeks have been unkind for the Coalition’s favoured economic narrative. The return of recession has been the key event but hardly the only one. The election of President Hollande, the continued euro-zone crisis, President Obama regularly appearing on our TV screens talking about jobs and growth, a Labour reshuffle that was seen to help unify different shades of economic opinion, and now the IMF saying (once again) that further action may be required, including fiscal stimulus, if the economy doesn’t pick up – all these have unsettled the Coalition.   

As a result the economic and political mood has, for now at least, tilted away from the Coalition on the economy. Pundits who were once scathing about any deviation from the coalition’s economic strategy are now straining to see nuance and be open minded.  Of course, we should never underestimate the fickleness of the commentariat – sentiment could easily shift back again – but the Coalition won’t be relaxed about how this is currently playing out.

One reason for their concern is that they feel very dug in. The stringency and tone of the economic argument made since 2010 on fiscal consolidation didn’t leave rhetorical space for a graceful transition to a different tack if the economy didn’t recover as hoped. That was a very deliberate choice. And given the enormous levels of uncertainly about our economic prospects it was always a foolhardy one.  

Which brings us back to Nick Clegg’s remarks. They are a sign of the resulting strain. Based on the FT report it’s not exactly obvious what the instructions given to the Treasury are, though the point is clearly designed to signal that infrastructure investment will be increased as part of a new emphasis on growth, and that the state can facilitate this without further increasing borrowing (let’s leave to one side the reality that capital investment is actually being slashed). Nor is it immediately obvious why the government thinks that borrowing at rock-bottom interest rates will lead to economic Armageddon yet piling new risks on the state balance sheet is a shiny new idea fit for our times.

Whatever the substance, the way this new tone on the economy has materialised also raises questions.  To date, the rules of exchange for the Coalition have been clear: the parties can differentiate on all manner of issues but when it comes to overall macroeconomic and fiscal policy they have to be seamless. It’s the glue that binds. True, Clegg emphasised that the new edict for the Treasury was agreed by Cameron, so it would be wrong to overstate this, but any perception of disagreement between the coalition parties on core economic strategy would be poison for them.  

Economically, it is to be hoped that there will be a shift in strategy – whatever label they choose to put on it – and others have set out compelling ideas for the form this could take.  Politically, the coalition urgently needs to work out exactly how it wants to evolve its economic narrative in the light of shifting events and then stick firmly to this script. And it might be a good idea if the Chancellor led the way.
 

Photograph: Getty Images

Gavin Kelly is a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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George Osborne's surplus target is under threat without greater austerity

The IFS exposes the Chancellor's lack of breathing space.

At the end of the last year, I noted how George Osborne's stock, which rose dramatically after the general election, had begun to plummet. His ratings among Tory members and the electorate fell after the tax credits imbroglio and he was booed at the Star Wars premiere (a moment which recalled his past humbling at the Paralympics opening ceremony). 

Matters have improved little since. The Chancellor was isolated by No.10 and cabinet colleagues after describing the Google tax deal, under which the company paid £130m, as a "major success". Today, he is returning from the Super Bowl to a grim prognosis from the IFS. In its Green Budget, the economic oracle warns that Osborne's defining ambition of a budget surplus by 2019-20 may be unachievable without further spending cuts and tax rises. 

Though the OBR's most recent forecast gave him a £10.1bn cushion, reduced earnings growth and lower equity prices could eat up most of that. In addition, the government has pledged to make £8bn of currently unfunded tax cuts by raising the personal allowance and the 40p rate threshold. The problem for Osborne, as his tax credits defeat demonstrated, is that there are few easy cuts left to make. 

Having committed to achieving a surplus by the fixed date of 2019-20, the Chancellor's new fiscal mandate gives him less flexibility than in the past. Indeed, it has been enshrined in law. Osborne's hope is that the UK will achieve its first surplus since 2000-01 just at the moment that he is set to succeed (or has succeeded) David Cameron as prime minister: his political fortunes are aligned with those of the economy. 

There is just one get-out clause. Should GDP growth fall below 1 per cent, the target is suspended. An anaemic economy would hardly be welcome for the Chancellor but it would at least provide him with an alibi for continued borrowing. Osborne may be forced to once more recite his own version of Keynes's maxim: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.