OBR chief warns Britain will miss growth targets

Robert Chote, head of the OBR, suggests that the Chancellor will miss his 1.7 per cent growth target

The head of the government's Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has indicated that he believes the Chancellor, George Osborne, will miss his 1.7 per cent growth target for the year.

In an interview with the Independent, Robert Chote said:

Back in March our central forecast was for 1.7 per cent growth this year, which at the time was fractionally more pessimistic than the average of the outside forecasters.

Since then obviously we've had weaker out-turns in the first and second quarters than most people, including us, anticipated. For the second quarter the ONS [Office for National Statistics] explained a variety of one-off factors that contributed to that.

As a simple matter of arithmetic, in order to get to 1.7 per cent now you'd be looking for quarter-on-quarter growth rates of 1 per cent in the second and third quarters of 2011, and there aren't many people out there expecting that.

Chote's comments will add to the pressure on Osborne, amid dismal official figures that show the economy flatlining. And he is not the first to question the 1.7 per cent figure. Earlier this week, the IMF cut Britain's growth forecast from 1.7 to 1.5 per cent, warning that the UK faces a "bumpy and uneven" recovery. This week, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research warned that "in the short-term, fiscal policy is too tight, and a modest loosening would improve prospects for output and employment with little or no negative effect on fiscal credibility".

The OBR will not produce a new forecast until later in the year, when the Chancellor gives his autumn statement. However, Chote's remarks indicate that he is keen to show that the OBR is not out of touch with developments in the economy. As voices across the political spectrum continue to voice concern about economic recovery -- the slowest in a century -- the Chancellor must show he is listening. Even the IMF, which broadly backs the austerity measures, warned that the government must be willing to respond if growth and inflation do not develop as planned.

Chote did not rule out the possibility of a "bounce back", saying "there are potential pressures in both directions". However, if this does not happen, as looks likely, Osborne must work on that ever-elusive "plan for growth". At the moment, one would be forgiven for thinking it does not exist.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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