Today's GDP figures are the final nail in the coffin of Osborne's credibility

This was all so avoidable, and entirely predictable.

The Q2 GDP growth figures from the ONS today were absolutely awful. Indeed, it was even worse than I had expected, having predicted -0.5 per cent against a consensus view of -0.2 per cent. The number came in at -0.7 per cent, which meant that the economy has had three successive quarters of negative growth - four of the last five and five of the last seven.

The economy has contracted by 1.4 per cent over the last three quarters and by 0.8 per cent since the Chancellor's autumn statement in 2010. The UK and Italy are the only two major countries in double dip recession and growth has been worse in the UK over the last year than it has been in Spain. The decline was broad-based, driven especially by a collapse in construction, which declined by 5.2 per cent in Q2, following 4.9 per cent on the previous quarter. Production fell by 1.3 per cent and services by 0.1 per cent. The IMF forecast of 0.2 per cent growth last week already looks overly optimistic - I have pencilled in -0.5 per cent or worse.

The coalition government took over an economy that was growing and by its inept policies it has killed growth stone dead. In interviews today, the Chancellor claimed he was “relentlessly focused” on sorting the economy out in the same way (presumably as King Canute was also determined to keep the tide back?). This, as ever, was worthless drivel because it is clear to all that the government's economic policy of austerity has failed and they have no clue what to do. The only fix is a fundamental U-turn with tax cuts, especially VAT, and big incentives for firms to invest and hire today – not in three years time. And what about youth unemployment? Policies to get infrastructure going are welcome but they won't have any effect for years; they should have been implemented when the government took office - now it is too late to get the economy growing again anytime soon. The Tory-led government still has no growth plan. If it does, let’s hear it.

The recession deniers were out in force saying that they couldn’t possibly be wrong, so there must be something wrong with the numbers. Of course, the main reason for this is that they supported the government's austerity nonsense and have egg on their faces. Just to make the point for the umpteenth time – the average data revision over the last 20 years is +0.1 per cent and over the last five years -0.1 per cent. In fact, the data revisions have generally been on the low side when the economy is slowing, as occurred in 2008. The statistical chances of the data being revised down further are the same as being revised up.

I do recall the 35 business leaders, who wrote to the Telegraph in October 2010 to say:

It has been suggested that the deficit reduction programme set out by George Osborne in his emergency Budget should be watered down and spread over more than one parliament. We believe that this would be a mistake. Addressing the debt problem in a decisive way will improve business and consumer confidence....There is no reason to think that the pace of consolidation envisaged in the Budget will undermine the recovery.

It hasn't exactly worked out that way. There has been no recovery, the economy is smaller today than it was when they put pen to paper, and business and consumer confidence has collapsed. It would be interesting to hear from them today on why it all went so badly wrong. Their silence is telling.

I now have every expectation that within a few days the UK will lose its AAA credit rating. I never thought it was actually a big deal as proved by the fact that when France was downgraded and bond yields fell. But Slasher Osborne set it up as something he should be judged against and so we should all do that.

This was all so avoidable, and entirely predictable. Our incompetent, part-time Chancellor and his advisers should be removed from office and put out to pasture. Ed Balls was right.

I am very angry that this visitation of evil spirits had to be foisted on the British people. We deserve better. This really is time for the biggest U-turn in history - that's what failure brings. I really have no sympathy for the fools – Cameron, Osborne and Clegg especially – who talked the economy down by claiming it was bankrupt and falsely comparing the UK to Greece.

No more excuses.


"Slasher" Osborne has been proved wrong yet again. Photograph: Getty Images

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

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