Exclusive: Osborne's supporters turn on him

Leading economists who formerly backed Osborne urge him to change course.

On 14 February 2010, 20 prominent economists wrote to the Sunday Times in support of George Osborne's deficit reduction strategy. They said: "... in order to be credible, the government's goal should be to eliminate the structural current budget deficit over the course of a Parliament, and there is a compelling case, all else equal, for the first measures beginning to take effect in the 2010/11 fiscal year." The Chancellor hailed their letter as a "really significant moment in the economic debate".

Two and a half years later, the UK is mired in a double-dip recession and Osborne is set to borrow £11.8bn more than Labour planned. For this week's issue of the New Statesman (out tomorrow), we asked the 20 whether they regretted signing the letter and what they would do to stimulate growth. Of those who replied, only one, Albert Marcet of Barcelona Graduate School of Economics, was willing to repeat his endorsement of Osborne. Nine urged the Chancellor to abandon his opposition to fiscal stimulus and to promote growth through tax cuts and higher infrastructure spending, while others merely said "no comment" or were "on holiday".

With the UK able to borrow at the lowest interest rates for 300 years (largely owing to its non-membership of the euro and its independent monetary policy), the signatories are both surprised and dismayed at Osborne’s failure to invest for growth. Since he entered the Treasury, the Chancellor has cut investment spending by £24.4bn, a net reduction of 48 per cent.

It is now only Osborne's political pride that is preventing a change of direction. Borrowing for growth would be a tacit admission that his nemesis, Ed Balls, was right and he was wrong. But if Osborne is not to condemn the UK economy - and his party’s poll ratings - to permanent stagnation, there is no alternative.

You can read the economists' responses in full in this week's New Statesman, but here, for Staggers readers, are the key lines.

Roger Bootle
Capital Economics

If I were Chancellor at this point, I would alter the plan, I would stop the cuts to public investment and I might even seek to increase it.

The key thing is to try and get the private sector to spend its money and that may require a bit of government spending to prime the pump.

Roger Bootle is the managing director of Capital Economics and author of “The Trouble With Markets” (Nicholas Brealey, £12.99)

Danny Quah
London School of Economics

The fear that UK borrowing would become overly costly has become much less relevant ... For most observers, the Bank of England has made clear that it is willing to put considerable resources into monetary easing. That has also reduced the pressure for dramatic debt reduction, compared to the perceived monetary stance at the time I signed the letter.

So, have I changed my mind since signing the letter? Yes. Because circumstances have changed.

Danny Quah is professor of economics and Kuwait Professor at the LSE

David Newbery
Cambridge University

It was necessary to cut current expenditure but, given the poor state of Britain’s publicly funded infrastructure and the looming recession, the necessary counterpart (taught us by Keynes in the Great Depression whose length we have now exceeded) is to increase public investment expenditure even if this worsened the short-run public deficit. That would stimulate private investment, particularly if it relaxed important transport bottlenecks, in a far more positive way than just cutting total government expenditure. That was indeed what the United States did with its immediate response, although many argued that it was at too modest a scale.

We need growth, and that requires investment. In a recession bordering on a depression, public investment in infrastructure that has a high pay-off even in good times must make sense.

David Newbery is emeritus professor of economics at Cambridge University

Michael Wickens
York University

If the government has made a mistake, it is in cutting capital expenditures – expenditures that have to made at some time and would be cheaper to do now than in the future. This could be debt financed. If the government clearly explained this strategy, I believe that the market would not charge higher rates for this additional borrowing. Such a strategy, not reneged on, would help.

Michael Wickens is professor of economics at the University of York

Hashem Pesaran
Cambridge University

My views have not changed – but this does not mean that I have agreed with this government’s obsession with credit ratings and fiscal reductions at the expense of growth-inducing policies. I was in favour of taking account of the possible adverse effects of large and unsustainable government deficits on borrowing costs and financial stability. I believe this government’s policies have not followed the balance I had in mind when I signed the letter.

Hashem Pesaran is professor of economics at Cambridge University

Tim Besley
London School of Economics

I would prefer to see government resources used in a targeted way and there may be creative ways of using the government balance sheet.  For my part, I am particularly keen to have more focus on housing in the near term.

John Vickers
Oxford University
Thanks, but I’ll pass on this.

John Vickers is professor of economics at Oxford University. He has criticised the government for watering down his recommendations for reform of the banking sector

Costas Meghir
Yale University

There is a huge opportunity to carry out important infrastructure projects and improvements in education. Currently both capital and labour are very cheap and available; there is little danger of crowding out private investment; and infrastructure and human capital spending properly thought through (not roads leading to nowhere or just beautiful school buildings but targeted educational interventions and projects useful to economic activity, such as airports and transport) can have high returns in the future making the whole enterprise profitable.

Kenneth Rogoff
Harvard University

I have always favoured investment in high-return infrastructure projects that significantly raise long-term growth.

Kenneth Rogoff is professor of economics and Thomas D Cabot Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University

Christopher Pissarides
London School of Economics

Professor Pissarides was unable to contribute to this feature, but these words are an edited extract from an open letter he wrote to George Osborne published in the New Statesman of 17 October 2011.

I know you worry about the deficit but I think that you worry about it too much. Keynesianism of the kind that guided policy after the Second World War no longer works, but there are still lessons in it for us. Worrying too much about the deficit in a recession makes the recession worse. The problem with a recession is that it punishes a relatively small number of people and it punishes them a great deal. The unemployed, new school leavers and ethnic minorities bear the brunt of it. The cost of recession to them is not only lower income, but loss of self-esteem, loss of skill and damaged future career paths. Less concern about the deficit and more attention to the economy’s ability to create jobs will reduce unemployment and improve well-being.

Your plan for deficit reduction should start the spending cuts gradually and respond to the state of the economy. It should go deeper only when the recovery is more robust. A more flexible approach to the cuts is good both for economic growth and for the size of the deficit.

And the one who backed Osborne

Albert Marcet
Barcelona Graduate School of Economics

I am quite sure there is no room for Keynesian-type policies to encourage growth in the fourth year of a recession; there is virtually no economic theory that will support that. I see no urgency to change the schedule in deficit reduction. The UK cannot unilaterally change the fact that there is a global recession, so growth will be below average. Furthermore, there is the danger of becoming the focus of the market’s speculation if there is any change in the commitment to reduce the public deficit.

Albert Marcet is research professor at the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics

Support for Chancellor George Osborne has fallen as the UK's recession has deepened. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Graham Brady illustration
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Tory backbench leader Graham Brady: “When we vote to leave the EU, the PM should stay”

As chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady is a king among Tory backbenchers. So what does the ardent Eurosceptic make of David Cameron’s prospects in the EU referendum – and afterwards?

Enter Graham Brady’s office and you are treated to a magnificent panoramic view of the Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square. It is an appropriately grand vantage point for one of the most influential MPs. As the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Brady is an essential barometer of Tory opinion. In recognition of this, he was one of the first guests to No 10 Downing Street in the hours following David Cameron’s general election victory. A prime minister with a majority of 12 – the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974 – must take permanent heed of his backbenchers.

I met Brady, 48, shortly before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions on 10 February. Among Conservative MPs below us in Portcullis House, there remained only one topic of discussion: Europe. Cameron’s draft agreement with the EU has failed to persuade many Eurosceptics that they should vote in favour of membership of the Union when the referendum is likely held on 23 June. Brady, who entered parliament in 1997 as the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, is one of those who intends to campaign for withdrawal.

“There is a very long-term problem that there is a massive difference between what Britain thought it was joining – the European Economic Community – and what it actually was joining,” he said. “There was no appetite or decision to join a political Europe . . . That is something that has always needed to be resolved in some way and I think the more the eurozone, in particular, integrates with the continuing crisis, the more we will have to see massive political and fiscal integration and probably, still, the departure of some of the weaker eurozone countries. As that process goes on, the United Kingdom has got to redefine its relationship in a meaningful way.”

In advance of the European Council summit in Brussels on 18-19 February, he warned that Cameron’s renegotiations had fallen far short. “The reforms that are being sought by the Prime Minister, while all welcome changes, don’t come anywhere near to that fundamental reform of the nature of our relationship with the EU.”

I asked Brady, who was elected to lead the 1922 Committee in 2010, how many of his Conservative colleagues he expected to join him. “It’s very hard to say. I’ve always thought that a clear majority of Conservative members of parliament are deeply unhappy about the shape of the current European Union. And probably a clear majority would have a preference of leaving the EU as it is today. I suspect that roughly 100 will declare that they’re campaigning for Britain to leave. But many more will be very sympathetic to that objective.”

His estimate of 100 is notably higher than the 50 to 70 predicted by Steve Baker, the co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain.

In recent weeks, Eurosceptics have complained as pro-EU cabinet ministers have campaigned for membership while front-bench opponents have remained “gagged”. Brady told me it was “not unreasonable” for Cameron to force them to abide by collective responsibility until the renegotiation had concluded. But, he added: “What is important is that once the deal is done things should be brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. I hope there will be a cabinet meeting, if not on the Friday after the Prime Minister returns, then on the Saturday morning, [so] that the cabinet can agree its collective position and also agree that those who don’t share that view are free to say so and free to campaign.”

Some MPs expect as few as five cabinet members to support EU withdrawal (Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale) although others remain hopeful of persuading Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to join them. “I hope that everybody who is really committed to Britain’s future as a free, independent democracy will realise this is a key decision point,” Brady said.

“There’s no doubt that if Boris Johnson were to campaign for Britain to leave it would bring an energy and buzz to the campaign. Of course that would be welcome, and I hope that Michael Gove will resolve his dilemma in the same direction.”

I asked Brady if he was worried by what some Eurosceptics call “the Farage problem”: that the most prominent opponent of EU membership is also the most polarising. “Nigel Farage is very good at what he does,” he said of the Ukip leader. “He’s a very effective communicator with some audiences, so clearly he has a role in the campaign. Given the salience of the issue for him and his party, it would be unreasonable to expect him not to be prominent in the campaign. But he is a Marmite character and I think this is why it’s so important that there should be a wide range of different voices.”

Brady, who had just returned from a breakfast meeting in the City of London, told me that a number of business people have revealed to him that although their “institutional position is firmly that we should remain in the EU . . . privately their view is completely the opposite”.

Two days before we met, Cameron had been accused of “scaremongering” for warning that “the Jungle”, the refugee camp in Calais, could move to Dover in the event of EU withdrawal. Brady told me that the Prime Minister’s remarks were indeed “inaccurate” and that it was “enormously helpful of the French government to point out that it wasn’t going to happen”.

Were Britain to vote to leave the EU, as polls suggest is possible, many Tory MPs on both sides believe that Cameron would have to resign as Prime Minister. But Brady rejected this suggestion. “No. When we vote to leave the European Union I think it is very important that we have a period of stability. I think it would be hugely valuable to have an experienced team in place to deal with the renegotiation, I think it’s actually very important that the Prime Minister should stay.”

I noted that he referred to “when” Britain leaves the EU, suggesting he was confident of victory. “I’m always confident of victory,” he replied with a smile.

Given Cameron’s decision to pre-resign before the election by vowing to serve only two terms, there will be a Conservative leadership contest before 2020. I asked Brady whether, as some have suggested, the members’ ballot should be widened to include more than two candidates.

“The rules are constructed for each contest by the 1922 executive and agreed with the party board. The only stipulation in the constitution of the party is that we should provide ‘a choice’ to the party members. That has always been construed as a choice of two. I can’t see any reason why parliamentary colleagues would wish to reduce their own influence in the process by putting forward a larger field.”

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has argued that it is essential there be a female candidate (ideally herself). Brady offered her some advice: “I have very fond recollections of a woman leading the Conservative Party. I hope that if Nicky wants to launch her campaign seriously, she’ll talk to me about how we might promote more grammar schools and selective education as one of the ways that we can stimulate real social mobility in the country again – and she’ll have my support.” It was after the then shadow education secretary, David Willetts, argued in 2007 that grammar schools inhibited social mobility that Brady resigned as shadow minister for Europe.

If there is one stipulation that most Conservative members and MPs will make, it is that there be an anti-EU candidate in the field. I asked Brady whether he would consider standing himself.

“I say to people that I’m very happy with being the returning officer for any leadership contest,” he replied. But the man with a better feel for Conservative backbench opinion than any other ended our conversation with this prediction. “I do think it’s very likely that if we put two candidates forward to the party in the country, at least one of them will have been someone who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle