Could interest rates go even lower?

A reduction in the base rate from 0.5 per cent to 0.25 per cent is no longer unthinkable.

With just a month to go until his autumn statement, the latest set of growth forecasts make grim reading for George Osborne. Ernst and Young's Item club predicts that the economy will grow by just 0.9 per cent this year, well below the 1.4 per cent it predicted three months ago. It has also downgraded its 2012 growth forecast from 2.2 per cent to 1.5 per cent.

Peter Spencer, the body's chief economic adviser explains:

It's worse than we thought. The bright spots in our forecast three months ago - business investment and exports - have dimmed to a flicker as uncertainty around Greece and the stability of the eurozone increases.

Significantly, the club uses the same forecasting methods as the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), offering us a preview of the downward revisions the OBR will have to make when it publishes its new estimates on 29 November, the day of Osborne's statement. Lower growth, of course, means higher borrowing, so the OBR is also likely to revise its deficit forecasts upwards. The club predicts that unemployment will rise from 2.57m to 2.7m over the next 18 months, resulting in lower tax revenues and higher welfare payments.

In response, it calls for a cut in stamp duty for first-time buyers and a reduction in interest rates from their current record low of 0.5 per cent to 0.25 per cent. The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has held the base rate at 0.5 per cent since March 2009 but it's worth noting that the possibility of reducing it even further was discussed at the last Bank of England meeting. The most recent BoE minutes (from 7-8 September) noted that the MPC "revisited the earlier decision not to lower Bank Rate below 0.5 per cent".

A reduction to 0.25 per cent still seems unlikely but, given the parlous state of the British economy, I'd expect that the MPC is ruling nothing out. As Mervyn King said when he announced another round of quantitative easing, "When the world changes, we change our policy response".

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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