Playing the eurozone blame game shows the extent of Osborne's failure

The longer the coalition remains in denial, the longer it will take for Britain to recover from its economic depression.

One of the first lessons a new government learns is how to blame their predecessors. Labour spent years blaming the ills of the country on "18 years of Conservative misrule". Two years after taking office the coalition has not missed a trick in turning the blame game into an art form. The promised deep public spending cuts were all Gordon Brown's fault and lower than expected economic growth was blamed on everything from the weather to the Royal Wedding.

The current chief culprit for the coalition's failings is the eurozone. I'm sure I'm not the only one who felt a distinct feeling of déja vu when the government responded to this week's dreadful Q2 figures by blaming the euro.

Of course, given that the eurozone is our main trading partner its problems, to put it mildly, do not help British exports. More than two years into the crisis it is still unclear whether Europe's leaders have the political will and nous to break the link between heavily indebted banks and sovereigns and restore calm to the markets.

But the reality is that even while the eurozone faces an existential crisis, with a handful of its 17 countries needing emergency support because they can't access the bond market, Britain is still faring worse. A chart by ABD Investment shows that, since the financial crisis began at the end of 2007, Britain has been comfortably outperformed by the US, Japan, Germany and France.

This year Britain's output is estimated to be 93.5 compared to the baseline figure of 100 in 2008. To put this in context, Germany is one of the few countries where output has now overtaken pre-crisis levels at 104.2 compared to a eurozone average at 97.5. The Spanish economy, which is serious danger of needing a €300 billion bail-out as it struggles to cope with crippling borrowing rates of over 7 per cent and scarily high unemployment, is only fractionally lower than Britain's at 91.9, with Italy at 90.9. France, which lost its triple-A credit rating at the start of the year, is at 97.7.

After three quarters in a row reporting a decline in output, the bald truth is that economic output is now lower than it was when the Coalition took office. There can certainly be little doubt that were Britain a member of the eurozone, we would have needed a massive bail-out, possibly larger than Spain, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus put together. Our triple-A credit rating would have gone months ago, perhaps even last year.

By any yardstick, George Osborne and Danny Alexander have failed on an impressive scale and should be waiting for their P45s.

But, whisper it, Britain should actually be profiting from the eurozone crisis. As investors in the European bond market panic, sending borrowing rates sky-high for Spain, Italy and others, the UK is one of the main beneficiaries from the flight of capital. Despite the weaknesses in the British economy, like the US, traders are so desperate to buy our bonds that they will pay for the privilege. Earlier this week interest rates on 10 year gilts fell to 1.4 per cent, well below the 2.4 per cent inflation level, and fully 6 per cent lower than Spain. It is frightening to imagine the extra debt we would have had without the eurozone crisis.

The Coalition should be using the massive advantage of such historically low borrowing costs to fund targeted stimulus measures. The best place to start would be to bring forward badly needed public infrastructure projects. The National Infrastructure plan states that Britain needs to invest £400 billion in infrastructure between now and 2020 if we are to remain competitive, and there is no better time to start. While penal borrowing costs, particularly for the southern Mediterranean nations, are effectively forcing eurozone countries to drastically scale back public spending, Britain is in an almost unique position to launch a series of supply-side measures to boost demand and generate growth.

At some point, people will tire of the coalition's protestations that the double dip recession is all the fault of Gordon Brown and those incompetent foreigners in the eurozone. Labour, too, have to be honest enough to admit that Britain's comatose economy is of our own making and, regardless of what does or doesn't happen in the eurozone, requires resolution at home.

The longer Cameron and Osborne et al remain in denial, absolving themselves of responsibility while persisting with the idea that Britain can operate like a north European version of the Cayman Islands, the longer it will take for Britain to recover from its economic depression. The stark reality is that even with a solid Olympics-driven bump, 2012 will be a year of recession. Of more concern to ministers is that barring a heroic recovery over the next three years, the Tories and Lib Dems will go to the country on the basis of economic output that is comfortably lower than it was in 2007. Barring an implosion by the Labour Party, that would probably cost them their jobs.

 

Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR