The UK could already be back in recession, say forecasters

The Item Club and the CEBR say Britain is in a double-dip recession. Where is the government's plan

Barely a week goes past without more bleak economic news. And now, according to two top forecasters, it appears that the UK could already be back in recession.

Ernst and Young's Item Club and the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) both believe that GDP shrank in the final quarter of 2011 and will fall again in the current three month period. A recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of contracting output.

This may come as no surprise (the OECD predicted similar results in November last year), but the Item Club's predictions are particularly worrying for the coalition. It is the only non-governmental forecasting group to use the same economic model for its forecasts as the Treasury and the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).

The Item Club's report predicts that the economy will grow just 0.2 per cent this year, and will not return to normal levels of growth until 2014, because the eurozone crisis will hold back investment in the UK. Even if a solution is found, it predicts that Britain's economy will still only grow by 1.75 per cent in 2012 and 3.8 per cent in 2014. Nor is it optimistic about job prospects, stating that unemployment will rise by a further 300,000 to just below three million people as the private sector fails to compensate for public sector job losses.

The CEBR reiterates these findings. It revised down its forecast for growth for 2012 from 0.7 per cent growth to a decline of 0.4 per cent, with a risk of decline of 1.1 per cent if the situation in the eurozone worsens.

For the time being, then, there is little light at the end of the tunnel. Amid these depressing forecasts about growth and unemployment, IPPR North has humanised the statistics by analysing ONS figures to show that in some areas of the UK, there are 20 jobseekers for each vacancy. In the worst affected area, West Dunbartonshire, there are 20 for each vacancy, while in London, Lewisham has 16 jobseekers for every job. It found that the national average was four jobseekers for every vacancy.

If these predictions are borne out -- and past example suggests that the most pessimistic forecasts tend to be the correct ones -- then it will be the double dip recession that the New Statesman has been warning of since March 2009. In October 2009, our Economics Editor David Blanchflower wrote:

Lesson number one in a deep recession is you don't cut public spending until you are into the boom phase. John Maynard Keynes taught us that. The euro area appears to be heading back into recession and the austerity measures being introduced in certain eurozone countries, especially those in Germany, will inevitably lower UK growth, too. It is extremely unlikely, therefore, that net trade will leap to our rescue. taught us that. The consequence of cutting too soon is that you drive the economy into a depression, with the attendant threats of rapidly rising unemployment, social disorder, rising poverty, falling living standards and even soup kitchens.

The government's sole economic priority thus far has been balancing the books. Will they come up with a plan for growth, faced with more and more bleak predictions? Somehow, it doesn't seem likely.

 

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

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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.