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 Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.