Cameron offers the eurozone advice

The PM offers advice to Europe but suggests little change at home.

David Cameron has made his big speech on the economy and the eurozone, focusing on the "three challenges" which Britain faces:

First, the struggle to recover from a long and deep recession at home.Second, the turbulence coming from the Eurozone. And third, the uncertainty over whether the world is on the right economic path, with debates about trade policy and how to support growth.

On the recession, the recent switch in emphasis from getting spending under control to building a sustainable plan for growth was in evidence. Cameron highlighted the reform to the planning regulations, which scrapped over 1000 pages of rules, the creation of 24 enterprise zones, and the regional growth fund. The latter has been panned as a costly mistake, but the Prime Minister suggested that it is on track to create 324,000 jobs – almost ten times as many as the National Audit Office predicted.

Internationally, Cameron was intent on offering advice which he doesn't seem to be particularly qualified to give, and which none of the recipients really want. He highlighted three things which the euro countries should do to keep the currency functioning properly:

First, the high deficit, low competitiveness countries in the periphery of the Eurozone do need to confront their problems head on. They need to continue taking difficult steps to cut their spending, increase their revenues and undergo structural reform to become competitive. The idea that high deficit countries can borrow and spend their way to recovery is a dangerous delusion.

Yes, point one: austerity! Of course, Italy and Spain are actually textbook practitioners of austerity already, and it hasn't done them a lot of good. But Cameron does also echo our leader today in calling for Germany to loosen monetary policy to make up for the absence of fiscal expansion, saying:

Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble is right to recognise rising wages in his country can play a part in correcting these imbalances but monetary policy in the Eurozone must also do more.

Cameron's second point calls for "governance arrangements that create confidence for the future":

As the British Government has been arguing for a year now that means following the logic of monetary union towards solutions that deliver greater forms of collective support and collective responsibility of which Eurobonds are one possible example. Steps such as these are needed to put an end to speculation about the future of the euro.

More collective support will irritate the already fuming Andrew Lilico, who wrote on Conservative Home today that Osborne and Brown should face criminal charges for the help already extended to Greece. Lilico wrote:

It cannot be acceptable for UK bureaucrats and ministers to act in clear defiance of the law, and then lose billions of pounds as a consequence of their nakedly illegal acts. That isn't just "one of those things". It is, in principle, actionable in much the same way as if the chief executive of your council acted clearly against the law and lost money by doing so. Ministers are not above the law, and are not entitled to defy Treaties, losing billions of pounds in the process, just because it seemed convenient to do so at the time.

Thirdly, Cameron argues that "we all need to address Europe’s overall low productivity and lack of economic dynamism":

Most EU member states are becoming less competitive compared to the rest of the world, not more. The Single Market is incomplete and competition throughout Europe is too constrained. Indeed, Britain has long been arguing for a pro-business, pro-growth agenda in Europe.

Cameron claiming a pro-growth agenda in Europe could be seen as faintly ironic. Lest we forget, Britain contracted last quarter while the eurozone merely stagnated. Perhaps this could be the government's new excuse for Britain's economic woes: we're pushing so hard for growth in Europe that we forgot to get any back home.

One line from Cameron was particularly welcome, however. Speaking about the right economic path to take post recession, he announced:

I’ve asked the Treasury to examine what more we can do to boost credit for business, housing and infrastructure.

We’ve taken the tough decisions to earn those low interest rates – so let’s make sure we’re putting them to good use. Building recovery is hard work because we are not reinflating the bubble but building a new model of growth. Some people asked why we didn’t have more economy Bills in the Queen’s Speech.  If you could legislate your way to growth, obviously we would. The truth is you can’t.

Despite the fact that many would argue that our low interest rates aren't "earned" at all, but merely a fortunate outcome of our low growth expectations, if we have them, we certainly should be using them. Let's see how the Prime Minister intends to do that.

Greek shoppers in Athens. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.