The Irish verdict George Osborne would like to forget

The case of Ireland is a cautionary tale, not an instruction manual.

RIP Ireland's economic miracle. A combination of tax cuts and increased public spending -- coupled with the credit crunch -- has left Ireland with a budget deficit of 32 per cent of its GDP this year. The credit-inflated bubble has now well and truly popped, the draconian austerity measures have failed -- as many predicted they would -- and the Irish government appears close to being bailed out by the EU.

Along with Greece, the Irish experience from the nineties into the noughties seems to be a perfect example of how not to do things. But in 2006 -- at the very apex of the Irish bubble -- one economic sage decided that Ireland was actually a fine example of how to run an econmy. His name?

George Osborne.

Writing in the Times (pre-paywall, folks), the then shadow chancellor declared:

Ireland stands as a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policymaking.

Long-term, eh, George?

There was little "long-term" about the artificial housing and banking boom that Ireland underwent in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Despite Osborne's claims, Ireland did not surge ahead because of its highly regarded education system or increased research and development at universities.

Ireland boomed instead on a toxic mix of cheap credit, lax banking regulation and by becoming a borderline tax haven.

Slashing corporation tax -- a move continually hailed by Osborne as the way forward -- simply weakened Ireland's tax base even further, making the recovery that bit more difficult.

We should learn from Ireland's mistakes. Unfortunately, however, Osborne wants to copy them -- at least judging by Osborne's cuts to universities, the 3.4 per cent reduction in the education budget and his continued obsession with reducing corporation tax -- to the point where companies could end up paying less tax than their cleaners.

The case of Ireland is a cautionary tale, not an instruction manual.

UPDATE: Alphaville over at the FT points out another cautionary tale from the Irish experiment.

"Sovereign bailouts involve a certain quid pro quo.

For a start, there's been talk that Germany is pushing for the country's low, low 12.5 per cent corporate tax rate to be hiked.

...

Awkward. And perhaps not least for a certain tax-avoiding search engine."

Which tax-avoiding search engine could that be? Why, the one that George Osborne bragged about speaking to in his Times op-ed: "I will be asking Google executives today why they set up in Dublin, not London." Alphaville explains exactly why Google set up in Dublin:

"Google Ireland sends the earnings on a tax-lite journey to the Netherlands, whence a shell subsidiary passes it on practically untouched to a Bermudan holding, basically. They call it a 'Double Irish'.

Jammy stuff. Until your tax haven files for a bailout from some very angry Germans, that is. And 26 per cent of your earnings is a lot to put at risk..."

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.