Who is left defending George Osborne?

The economists have deserted him, and business leaders are nowhere to be heard.

So far, we have heard from 13 of the 20 economists who signed the now-infamous letter to George Osborne in the Sunday Times in February 2010, in which they argued that:

[The] government's goal should be to eliminate the structural current Budget deficit over the course of a parliament.

Eleven of the economists responded to the New Statesman's request for a comment, two and a half years on. Of those, nine admitted that the changed situation had caused them to change their minds; one, Albert Marcet of Spain, remained supportive of Osborne; and the eleventh, Oxford's John Vickers, declined to comment either way.

Since then, two further signatories have got in touch with the Daily Telegraph to confirm that they, too, remain supportive. But what of the other seven? Will they admit they got it wrong; stake their colours ever firmer to a dying idea; or take the cowards' way out? We are still waiting to hear from:

  • Sir Howard Davies, then of the London School of Economics, now working for France's Science Po
  • Meghnad Desai, formerly of the London School of Economics
  • Andrew Turnbull, former Cabinet Secretary
  • Orazio Attanasio of University College London
  • John Muellbauer of Nuffield College, Oxford
  • Thomas Sargent of New York University, joint winner of 2011 Nobel prize in economics
  • Anne Sibert of Birkbeck College

The economists aren't the only letter writers who should be embarrassed of their record. What about the 35 businesspeople who signed, corralled by CCHQ, their own letter in October 2010, to the Telegraph, which began:

It has been suggested that the deficit reduction programme set out by George Osborne in his emergency Budget should be watered down and spread over more than one parliament. We believe that this would be a mistake.

This letter was signed by the 34 men and one woman in their personal capacities, but some of them have surely been hit hard by the collapse in confidence which has ensued in the last two years. Andy Bond, ASDA's former chairman, can't be too happy about the impact the weak economy has had on his old company's sales growth, for instance.

Of course, some are unlikely to recant no matter what the evidence. Party-funding transparency website Search the Money reveals that five of the 35 are donors to the Tories, with donations totalling over half a million pounds between them.

Will any of the business leaders recant? The full list, including positions in 2010, is below. The New Statesman awaits their response.

  • Will Adderley, CEO, Dunelm Group
  • Robert Bensoussan, Chairman, L.K. Bennett
  • Andy Bond, Chairman, ASDA
  • Ian Cheshire, Chief Executive, Kingfisher
  • Gerald Corbett, Chairman, SSL International, moneysupermarket.com, Britvic
  • Peter Cullum, Executive Chairman, Towergate
  • Tej Dhillon, Chairman and CEO, Dhillon Group
  • Philip Dilley, Chairman, Arup
  • Charles Dunstone, Chairman, Carphone Warehouse Group, Chairman, TalkTalk Telecom Group
  • Warren East, CEO, ARM Holdings
  • Gordon Frazer, Managing Director, Microsoft UK
  • Sir Christopher Gent, Non-Executive Chairman, GlaxoSmithKline
  • Ben Gordon, Chief Executive, Mothercare
  • Anthony Habgood, Chairman, Whitbread , Chairman, Reed Elsevier
  • Aidan Heavey, Chief Executive, Tullow Oil
  • Neil Johnson, Chairman, UMECO
  • Nick Leslau, Chairman, Prestbury Group
  • Ian Livingston, CEO, BT Group
  • Ruby McGregor-Smith, CEO, MITIE Group
  • Rick Medlock, CFO, Inmarsat; Non-Executive Director lovefilms.com, The Betting Group
  • John Nelson, Chairman, Hammerson
  • Stefano Pessina, Executive Chairman, Alliance Boots
  • Nick Prest, Chairman, AVEVA
  • Nick Robertson, CEO, ASOS
  • Sir Stuart Rose, Chairman, Marks & Spencer
  • Tim Steiner, CEO, Ocado
  • Andrew Sukawaty, Chairman and CEO, Inmarsat
  • Michael Turner, Executive Chairman, Fuller, Smith and Turner
  • Moni Varma,Chairman,Veetee
  • Paul Walker, Chief Executive, Sage
  • Paul Walsh, Chief Executive, Diageo
  • Robert Walters, CEO, Robert Walters
  • Joseph Wan, Chief Executive, Harvey Nichols
  • Bob Wigley, Chairman, Expansys, Stonehaven Associates, Yell Group
  • Simon Wolfson, Chief Executive, Next

Read David Blanchflower's most recent column for the New Statesman, "Perhaps Iain Duncan Smith will accuse me of peeing on the data", here

Lord Wolfson, one of Osborne's defenders. Photograph: Getty Images

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What price would the UK pay to stop Brexit?

The EU could end Britain's budget rebate and demand that we join the euro and the Schengen zone.

Among any group of Remain politicians, discussion soon turns to the likelihood of stopping Brexit. After Theresa May's electoral humbling, and the troubled start to the negotiations, those who oppose EU withdrawal are increasingly optimistic.

“I’m beginning to think that Brexit may never happen,” Vince Cable, the new Liberal Democrat leader, said recently. A growing number, including those who refuse to comment publicly, are of the same view. 

But conversation rarely progresses to the potential consequences of halting Brexit. The assumption that the UK could simply retain the status quo is an unsafe one. Much hinges on whether Article 50 is unilaterally revocable (a matter Britain might have been wise to resolve before triggering withdrawal.) Should the UK require the approval of the EU27 to halt Brexit (as some lawyers believe), or be forced to reapply for membership, Brussels would extract a price. 

Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, recently echoed French president Emmanuel Macron's declaration that “there is always a chance to reopen the door”. But he added: “Like Alice in Wonderland, not all the doors are the same. It will be a brand new door, with a new Europe, a Europe without rebates, without complexity, with real powers and with unity.”

The UK's £5bn budget rebate, achieved by Margaret Thatcher in 1984, has long been in the EU's sights. A demand to halt Brexit would provide the perfect pretext for its removal. 

As Verhofstadt's reference to “unity” implied, the UK's current opt-outs would also be threatened. At present, Britain (like Denmark) enjoys the right to retain its own currency and (like Ireland) an exemption from the passport-free Schengen travel zone. Were the UK to reapply for membership under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty, it would be automatically required to join the euro and to open its borders.

During last year's Labour leadership election, Owen Smith was candid enough to admit as much. “Potentially,” he replied when asked whether he would accept membership of the euro and the Schengen zone as the price of continued EU membership (a stance that would not have served Labour well in the general election.)

But despite the daily discussion of thwarting Brexit, politicians are rarely confronted by such trade-offs. Remaining within or rejoining the EU, like leaving, is not a cost-free option (though it may be the best available.) Until anti-Brexiteers acknowledge as much, they are vulnerable to the very charge they level at their opponents: that they inhabit a fantasy world. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.