Unlike the UK, France and Germany aren't in recession

Osborne was wrong to blame the eurozone for our double-dip recession.

George Osborne is fond of blaming the eurozone crisis  for Britain's economic woes (he recently claimed that the crisis had "killed off" growth in the UK) , so it's worth noting that, unlike the UK, the euro's two largest members - Germany and France - aren't in recession. While the British economy contracted by 0.7 per cent in the second quarter of this year, Eurostat figures out today showed that the French economy remained flat, while Germany grew by 0.3 per cent. In the previous quarter, Britain shrunk by 0.5 per cent, while Germany grew by 0.5 per cent and France stagnated.

Of course, since much of our trade is with the eurozone, its lack of growth (it collectively shrank by 0.2 per cent in Q2), doesn't help. But as even Tory MPs concede, it is some exaggeration to claim it "killed off" our recovery. The Chancellor accomplished that all by himself. It was his absurd claim that the UK was on "the brink of bankruptcy" and his premature austerity measures, most notably the 2.5 point rise in VAT, that destroyed confidence and strangled growth. With the exception of Italy, Britain is the only G20 country to have suffered a double-dip recession.

At this moment, contrary to Osborne, Britain should actually be profiting from the eurozone crisis. With investors ever more reluctant to lend to eurozone countries, the UK can afford to borrow at the lowest interest rates for 300 years. We are, as Osborne has said many times, a "safe haven". Yet the Chancellor appears determined not to take advantage of this fact. He has continually refused to borrow for growth (in the form of tax cuts and higher infrastructure spending), despite little evidence that this would lead to a rise in British gilt yields. It is 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 that he was wrong. Until the Chancellor backs down, we will all collectively pay for his stubbornness.

George Osborne claimed that the eurozone had "killed off" the UK's economic recovery. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.