Crisis? What crisis?

The Tories are playing on unfounded fears about the Budget deficit

Yesterday the Conservatives marked the launch of their election campaign by plastering locations around Britain with huge pictures of David Cameron's head. In the posters, the head appears concerned but resolute; next to it floats the legend, "We can't go on like this. I'll cut the deficit, not the NHS", as if in some way these two things were direct alternatives to one another.

Meanwhile, the Financial Times asked 79 economists what they considered to be the three biggest risks to the economy. Thirty-seven of them warned that the Budget deficit puts the UK at risk of a fiscal crisis.

So, for the other 42 economists, the risk of fiscal crisis didn't even make it into their top three. But even when its use is unjustified, the word "crisis" has a headline-generating resonance that "slow recovery in world trade" or "risk of an inexperienced new chancellor" (both worries that also came up in the FT's poll) just can't match. Robert Skidelsky made the point in an interview with the NS's culture editor, Jonathan Derbyshire, back in November:

Has the bailout shifted the problem from a banking crisis to a fiscal crisis?
I don't think there is a fiscal crisis. I think it's an invention.

By politicians?
Yes. Someone like George Osborne gets away with leaving out assumptions behind his arguments because he's not confronted with them. He's interviewed a lot, but people haven't really nailed him. There hasn't been enough debate about the stimulus and national debt.

Asked about the FT's poll in an email exchange this morning, Lord Skidelsky made the same point again: "Talk of a looming fiscal crisis is greatly exaggerated. There is no risk to government solvency in the short run."

There's no question that £178bn, the current deficit, is a very big number. But that doesn't mean that reducing it should be the government's top priority. Part of it "will disappear automatically as the economy starts to grow, and extra revenues come in" -- something that whoever is in charge next year will no doubt take credit for anyway. As for the rest, action will have to be taken in the long run. As Lord Skidelsky says: "No one wants a sick patient to stay on antibiotics too long. But to withdraw the treatment too soon risks a serious relapse."

 

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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left