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.

 

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.