Why today's GDP figures will give Osborne sleepless nights

The recession leaves the UK's AAA rating in even-greater danger.

In his response to today's terrible GDP figures (the economy shrunk by 0.7% in the second quarter), George Osborne wisely resisted blaming the eurozone, the weather or the Jubilee for the third successive quarter of contraction. Instead, he dwelt on the UK's "deep-rooted economic problems". Britain has many long-term problems - an economy too dependent on finance, a lack of long-term investment, and persistently high levels of youth unemployment - but the charge against Osborne is that he has made them worse, not better.

Today's figures mean that the economy is now smaller than it was at the time of the election and 4.5% below its 2008 peak. Even before the double-dip (and don't say we didn't warn you), the UK, unlike the US, Germany, France, and Canada, still hadn't recovered the lost output from the previous recession. Osborne will hope for an Olympics-led recovery in the third quarter as the lost production from the Jubilee bank holiday is made up. But recent history suggests he would be wise not to count on it.

The deepening of the recession will do little to alter the demands of Labour and Tory MPs but it will amplify them. The problem for Osborne is that the constraints of the coalition and his decision to rule out fiscal stimulus in advance mean that he can offer neither the supply-side revolution that the Tories crave nor the Keynesian boost that Labour seeks. As a result, he has invested much of his hope in greater monetary stimulus by the Bank of England. But with the UK caught in a classic liquidity trap - when consumers are so determined to save that greater availability of credit makes no difference to growth - he is profoundly wrong to do so.

At times of recession, when consumer spending is depressed and businesses are hoarding cash, the state must act as a spender of last resort and stimulate growth through temporary tax cuts and higher infrastructure spending. Yet it is precisely this option that Osborne has rejected at every turn, dismissing well-intentioned critics as "deficit deniers". Today's figures are his reward.

A further consequence of the recession is that it will be even harder, if not impossible, for Osborne to meet his golden rules on borrowing. The IMF, whose prediction of 0.2% growth this year now looks hopelessly optimistic, has already warned that he will miss his target for national debt to be falling as a percentage of GDP by 2015-16. Today's figures leave him even further away from that goal.

While Osborne's arbitrary targets are of little economic importance they are of immense political significance. Should he abandon his debt rule, the UK could lose its AAA credit rating. Standard & Poor's, for instance, has previously warned that our top rating is conditional on Osborne meeting his fiscal mandate. But why should we listen to the discredited agenices that rated Lehman Brothers and AIG as "safe investments" days before the crash? The answer is simple: we shouldn't. But this doesn't alter the fact that Osborne did. Having adopted the UK's credit rating as his metric of success (he once boasted that we were "the only major western country which has had its credit rating improve") he can hardly change tact now.

The UK's AAA credit rating is one of the few emblems of "credibility" the Chancellor has left. Its loss would be a final and possibly terminal blow to his authority.

George Osborne blamed the UK's "deep-rooted economic problems" for the continuing recession. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
Show Hide image

Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496