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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.