The IMF spoils the coalition's relaunch

Forecast for UK growth is downgraded by more than any other G8 country.

David Cameron is increasingly keen to draw attention to what he calls the coalition's "achievements": cutting the deficit by a quarter, capping benefits, creating hundreds of new academies, reforming public sector pensions and so on. We learned today that the government will shortly publish a "mid-term review" highlighting its "successes". But the IMF has just provided a reminder of one of the coalition's failures: its inability to generate growth.

In its latest World Economic Outlook, the Fund downgraded its forecast for UK growth by more than any other G8 country. It now expects the UK to grow by just 0.2 per cent this year (down from a previous forecast of 0.8 per cent) and by 1.4 per cent next year (down from 2 per cent). The Q2 GDP figures, which will be released this month, will almost certainly show that we remain in recession, a further blow to George Osborne's diminished authority.

But in his defence, Osborne will point out that the IMF has again endorsed his deficit reduction plan. It states that the UK has "appropriately maintained its commitments to balance the structural current budget within five years and to put net debt on a declining path, with additional consolidation in store in 2015–17." Despite previously stating that the UK should enact fiscal stimulus (through "temporary tax cuts and greater infrastructure spending")  if activity continues to "undershoot current expectations" (which it has), the IMF appears to have fallen prey to another bout of fiscal hawkery.

Chancellor George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street on July 10, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

In the row over public sector pay, don't forget that Theresa May is no longer in charge

Downing Street's view on public sector pay is just that – Conservative MPs pull the strings now.

One important detail of Theresa May’s deal with the Democratic Unionist Party went unnoticed – that it was not May, but the Conservatives’ Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, who signed the accord, alongside his opposite number, the DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson.

That highlighted two things: firstly that the Conservative Party is already planning for life after May. The deal runs for two years and is bound to the party, not the leadership of Theresa May. The second is that while May is the Prime Minister, it is the Conservative Party that runs the show.

That’s an important thing to remember about today’s confusion about whether or not the government will end the freeze in public sector pay, where raises have been capped at one per cent since 2012 and have effectively been frozen in real terms since the financial crisis.

Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, signalled that the government could end the freeze, as did Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary. (For what it’s worth, Gavin Barwell, now Theresa May’s chief of staff, said before he took up the post that he thought anger at the freeze contributed to the election result.)

In terms of the government’s deficit target, it’s worth remembering that they can very easily meet Philip Hammond’s timetable and increase public sector pay in line with inflation. They have around £30bn worth of extra wriggle room in this year alone, and ending the pay cap would cost about £4.1bn.

So the Conservatives don’t even have to U-turn on their overall target if they want to scrap the pay freeze.

And yet Downing Street has said that the freeze remains in place for the present, while the Treasury is also unenthusiastic about the move. Which in the world before 8 June would have been the end of it.

But the important thing to remember about the government now is effectively the only minister who isn’t unsackable is the Prime Minister. What matters is the mood, firstly of the Cabinet and of the Conservative parliamentary party.

Among Conservative MPs, there are three big areas that, regardless of who is in charge, will have to change. The first is that they will never go into an election again in which teachers and parents are angry and worried about cuts to school funding – in other words, more money for schools. The second is that the relationship with doctors needs to be repaired and reset – in other words, more money for hospitals.

The government can just about do all of those things within Hammond’s more expansive target. And regardless of what Hammond stood up and said last year, what matters a lot more than any Downing Street statement or Treasury feeling is the mood of Conservative MPs. It is they, not May, that pulls the strings now.

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.

0800 7318496