Why we should hope the UK loses its AAA rating

It would expose the myth that the market punishes higher borrowing.

As a drowning man clings to a life raft, so George Osborne clings to the UK's AAA credit rating as proof of his "credibility". When Standard & Poor's reaffirmed the UK's top rating last month, Osborne declared: "this is a reminder that despite the economic problems we face, the world has confidence that we are dealing with them".

But with the Chancellor now likely to break his golden debt rule, it's possible and even probable that at least one agency (Moody's and Fitch currently have the UK on "negative outlook") will remove our AAA rating in the near future. If Osborne is to be believed, this would be a disastrous blow to our economic credibility. But, as so often with the Chancellor, there's no evidence for this claim. The US, for instance, has seen no rise in its borrowing costs since losing its AAA rating a year ago today, indeed, its rates have fallen. All the evidence we have suggests that the market is prepared to lend to countries that can borrow in their own currencies, such as the US, the UK and Japan, and that enjoy the benefits of an independent monetary policy, regardless of their credit ratings or their debt levels (Japan's national debt is 211 per cent of GDP, while ours is 66 per cent, a reminder that we were never on the "brink of bankruptcy").

Now, as PoliticsHome points out, Danny Alexander has hinted that he knows as much. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury told the BBC:

The credit rating is not the be-all and end-all.

What matters is have we got the right policy mix for the country to get people back into work, to support economic growth, to deal with the huge problems in our public finances and the credit agencies reflect on those things and the ratings they give are a reflection of the credibility of that mix.

In fact, one could go further than Alexander and argue that the loss of our AAA rating would be a positive development. It would explode the myth that borrowing for growth (in the form of tax cuts and higher public spending) would lead to a bond market revolt and would strengthen the cause of those who argue that we shouldn't allow the agencies that rated Lehman Brothers as "safe", days before it filed for bankruptcy, to dictate our economic policy. It would also, of course, be a lethal blow to the political credibility of the current occupant of the Treasury. Osborne's deficit reduction plan was rooted in the need to preserve our AAA rating. If he fails in this task, why should voters trust him to do anything else?

Yet the loss of our AAA rating would finally liberate Osborne to pursue a plan that actually works. Once the belief that the market holds a veto on our borrowing levels is exposed as a myth, the Chancellor could finally stimulate growth through tax cuts and higher public spending. A growing economy could revive his reputation and that of his party. The path to redemption is open to Osborne. Unfortunately for the Tories, there is almost no chance of him taking it.

Chancellor George Osborne and Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt watch the track cycling at the Olympics. 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.