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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.