Whisper it, but Osborne has embraced Keynesianism

The Chancellor has accepted the need for the state to underwrite investment.

The announcement by George Osborne that the government will underwrite £50bn of infrastructure investment is a belated admission that, in times of recession, the state must intervene to stimulate growth. The delusion that the coalition's spending cuts would increase consumer confidence and produce a self-sustaining private-sector-led recovery has been abandoned after Osborne's "expansionary fiscal contraction" turned out to be, well, contractionary. Whisper it, but Keynesianism is back. 

Since the decision to guarantee loans will not, in theory at least, require the government to spend a penny more, Osborne will insist that this is not "plan B" or anything like it. As his sidekick, Danny Alexander, puts it, "This is not a direct call on the taxpayer. That would only happen if something went wrong with a project." And after the private sector's sterling performance over the last month, why should we doubt him?

But even if we assume that the taxpayer won't be forced to pick up the tab for any of the projects (the FT cites "the Thames tunnel, the Mersey Gateway toll bridge and the A14 road widening in Cambridge" as examples of those that might benefit), this remains a significant U-turn by Osborne. As the excellent Jonathan Portes points out on his blog, from an economic perspective, the difference between the government "borrowing from the private sector to finance investment spending, and the government guaranteeing the borrrowing of another entity" is is largely irrelevant. The Chancellor has accepted the need for counter-cyclical spending to boost aggregate demand - the essence of Keynesianism.

Now Osborne has performed a small U-turn he will find it harder to avoid a bigger one. The belief that, in times of recession, the state can and should stimulate growth through temporary tax cuts and infrastructure spending is based on decades of economic research. Once you accept this, it is hard to be a little heretical.

Since Osborne is so fond of boasting of the UK's "safe haven" status, the least he could do is take advantage of it. He should use the country's historically low bond yields to borrow to stimulate growth through higher infrastructure spending (the most effective stimulus, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility) and tax cuts.  As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Christopher Pissarides argued in our "Plan B" special issue last October, "a small rise in gilt interest rates is a small price to pay for more jobs".

The Chancellor has finally accepted that there is an alternative to permanent stagnation (or worse). Now he needs the policies to match.

Chancellor George Osborne plans to guarantee up to £40bn of "nearly ready" infrastructure projects. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage