It's only Tuesday but this has already been a bad week for George Osborne. Yesterday it emerged that the structural deficit could be £12bn higher-than-expected, now the IMF, hitherto a strong supporter of the Chancellor's economic strategy, has slashed its growth forecasts for the UK, and has warned that Britain, the US and Germany (all countries where governments can borrow at historically low rates) should "consider delaying some of their planned adjustment" if growth continues to fall short of expectations. In other words, Osborne might well need a "plan B".
Just a month ago, the IMF said that the UK should only consider slowing its deficit reduction plan if it looked as though the economy was headed for a "prolonged period of weak growth, high unemployment and subdued inflation." But now it suggests that weaker-than-expected growth would be justification enough. The consensus, however slowly, is beginning to turn against Osborne and against extreme austerity.
The IMF now predicts that the UK will grow by just 1.1 per cent this year (down from an earlier forecast of 1.5 per cent) and by 1.6 per cent in 2012 (down from 2.3 per cent). If the fund is right, growth will be worse than in 2010 and significantly lower than the OBR's forecast of 1.7 per cent. The IMF has now cut its 2011 UK growth forecast four times in the last year (from 2 per cent, to 1.7 per cent, to 1.5 per cent, to 1.1 per cent). There is every likelihood that it will do so again. The "grey skies" that Vince Cable spoke of yesterday are looking even greyer today.