Boris undermines Osborne's austerity argument

Mayor of London points out that "Greek austerity measures are making the economy worse".

Even by his own high standards, Boris Johnson is on combative form this morning. The Mayor of London uses his regular Telegraph column to urge EU leaders to let Greece default on its debts and force it to leave the euro, while in a piece for the Sun, he launches an assault on Ken Clarke's sentencing plans. "Soft is the perfect way to enjoy French cheese, but not how we should approach punishing criminals," he writes.

But it's a line in his Telegraph column that really stands out: "The trouble is that the Greek austerity measures are making the economy worse." It's a point that Ed Balls and others have made frequently in recent months but it's not one that you'll hear from George Osborne, for the simple reason that it contradicts his claim that spending cuts are a precondition for growth.

The austerity measures adopted by Ireland, Portugal (which went one better than Osborne and raised VAT twice) and Greece have exacerbated, rather than diminished, their economic problems. As Balls argued in his LSE lecture last week: "[W]hat they [Portugal], Ireland and Greece have all discovered - just like Argentina, Brazil and Turkey before them - is that it doesn't matter how much they cut spending or how much they raise taxes; if they can't create jobs and growth, their debt and deficit problems get even worse and market confidence falls further still."

Similarly, in Britain, rather than increasing growth, Osborne's austerity agenda has destroyed it. The economy, which grew by 1.8 per cent over Q2 and Q3 2010, has not grown for the last six months. Britain, which was at the top end of the European growth league table, is now fourth from bottom, with only Greece, Portugal and Denmark below it.

Yet according to Osborne's doctrine of "expasionary fiscal contraction", the reverse should have happened. As the state contracts, the economy should expand. But with consumer spending still depressed and the banks not lending enough, where will growth come from if not from active government? Britain, like Greece, cannot cut its way out of stagnation.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The trouble with a second Brexit referendum

A new vote risks coming too soon for Remainers. But there is an alternative. 

In any given week, a senior political figure will call for a second Brexit referendum (the most recent being David Miliband). It's not hard to see why. EU withdrawal risks proving an act of political and economic self-harm and Leave's victory was narrow (52-48). Had Remain won by a similar margin, the Brexiteers would have immediately demanded a re-run. 

But the obstacles to another vote are significant. Though only 52 per cent backed Brexit, a far larger number (c. 65 per cent) believe the result should be respected. No major party currently supports a second referendum and time is short.

Even if Remainers succeed in securing a vote, it risks being lost. As Theresa May learned to her cost, electorates have a habit of punishing those who force them to polls. "It would simply be too risky," a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Were a second referendum lost, any hope of blocking Brexit, or even softening it, would be ended. 

The vote, as some Remainers note, would also come at the wrong moment. By 2018/19, the UK will, at best, have finalised its divorce terms. A new trade agreement with the EU will take far longer to conclude. Thus, the Brexiteers would be free to paint a false picture of the UK's future relationship. "It would be another half-baked, ill-informed campaign," a Labour MP told me. 

For this reason, as I write in my column this week, an increasing number of Remainers are attracted to an alternative strategy. After a lengthy transition, they argue, voters should be offered a choice between a new EU trade deal and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be a distant memory. The proviso, they add, is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms (rather than ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). 

Rather than publicly proposing this plan, MPs are wisely keeping their counsel. As they know, those who hope to overturn the Brexit result must first be seen to respect it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.