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.

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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.