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.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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