The UK isn't a "safe haven", it's just stagnant

Lower borrowing costs are a reflection of economic weakness, not strength.

"The difficult decisions on the deficit have made the UK a safe haven in the recent economic storm," boasted George Osborne in his response to last week's anaemic GDP figures. Today, the Chancellor and his advisers are pointing to the fact that the cost of borrowing yesterday fell to its lowest level for over 50 years as proof of that claim. A spokesman for Osborne said:

"It's a vote of confidence, one of the key aspects of our plan has been a tight fiscal policy combined with a loose monetary policy, it's the right mix for economic growth, and the need to rebalance towards exports and away from consumption."

The yield on 10-year UK gilts has fallen to 2.76, which means far lower interest repayments on government debt, potentially saving the taxpayer billions of pounds. But is this really an unequivocally good news story, as Osborne suggests? After all, it's likely that the fall in rates has much much more to do with the fact that the Bank of England base rate is unlikely to rise until 2012, than it has with the supposed "strength" of the British economy.

Here's Paul Krugman's take:

Yields in the US have, of course, plunged rather than risen. And they've plunged for the same reason UK yields have plunged: a scarily weak economy suggests that it will be years before the central bank raises rates.

In a wonderful pay-off, he adds:

It's sad, actually: the wolf is at the door, and Osborne thinks it's the confidence fairy.

Over on his blog, Faisal Islam, Channel 4's excellent economics editor, makes the same point and highlights an important experiment by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. The NIESR points out that one would expect a fall in rates, if the result of increased economic confidence, to correlate with a rise in the FTSE-100. But after crunching the numbers, the body found no such relationship. NIESR director Jonathan Portes concluded: "Low long-term interest rates appear to reflect economic weakness and lack of market confidence in the prospects of the UK economy, not the reverse."

Over to you, Mr Osborne.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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