Strong US growth raises the bar for Osborne

Osborne may soon no longer be able to boast that the UK is doing better than the US.

One of George Osborne's favourite boasts is that the UK economy has grown by more than the US economy this year. He consistently cites this fact as proof that austerity, not stimulus, is the way to grow the economy. This passage, from an Osborne op-ed for the Telegraph in August, is typical:

The US economy has grown more slowly than the UK economy so far this year, despite fiscal stimulus in the former and fiscal consolidation in the latter, showing that the problem is not too much fiscal responsibility.

His basic claim is not wrong. In the first two quarters of this year, the US economy grew by 0.3 per cent (0.1 per cent in Q1 and 0.2 per cent in Q2), while the UK economy grew by 0.5 per cent (0.4 per cent in Q1 and 0.1 per cent in Q2). (Although, of course, the UK economy shrunk by 0.5 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2010, while the US economy grew by 0.6 per cent.) But today's better-than-expected US growth figures have raised the bar for Osborne. In the third quarter, the US economy grew by a relatively impressive 0.6 per cent (or an annual rate of 2.5 per cent).

It's a figure that few economists expect the UK to match when the Q3 GDP figures are published on Tuesday. Growth in the second quarter was recently revised down by the ONS to just 0.1 per cent and the Q3 figure is unlikely to be much better.

The challenge is clear. Unless the Q3 growth figure is at least 0.5 per cent, Osborne will no longer be able to boast that the UK has grown by more than the US this year.

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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