GDP figures: a reaction round-up

"The government is failing to get public spending under control."

GDP fell 0.3 per cent in the last quarter of 2012. Although markets held relatively steady, the Sterling plummeted, and economists are warning that the UK is in danger of losing its AAA rating:

Charles Levy, senior economist at The Work Foundation:

Following three years of a flat economy, today's GDP figures confirm that our economy is again contracting, raising the prospect of a triple dip recession. 2012 saw considerable improvements in the labour market, with over half a million new jobs created, though many part-time. However, without growth even this improvement will be hard to sustain.

Mark Littlewood, Director General at the Institute of Economic Affairs:

These figures are clearly very disappointing. If the government does indeed have a strategy for growth, it plainly isn't working.

The government's independent forecaster had predicted the economy would be growing by about 2 per cent or 3 per cent by now. In fact, it is flatlining or even slipping backwards into a triple dip recession.

The government is failing to get public spending under control. This year alone, George Osborne will add £4,000 to the national debt for each and every British household. Far from a programme of austerity, the coalition are running up collossal budget deficits.

Andrew Goodwin, senior economic advisor to the Ernst & Young ITEM Club:

Today's GDP figures are right at the lower end of our expectations. The manufacturing and services figures came in pretty much where we expected them to but the construction outturn is very disappointing in the context of the monthly data that has already been published. Construction output must have collapsed in December to get such a small boost over the quarter as a whole.

The extraction sector also continues to exert a major drag. Where oil production was once a major support to UK activity, the sector is declining rapidly and the Q4 collapse means that output has now fallen by almost 40% over the past five years. This is having a significant impact on the GDP figures, the excluding oil measure is just over 2% short of previous peaks, in contrast to the 3.5% shortfall for GDP.

Nawaz Ali, UK Market Analyst for Western Union Business Solutions:

Britain's bigger-than-expected economic slump may now force the central bank to re-open its stimulus cupboard as soon as next month. Governor King may even reach for something unexpected in order to eliminate the risk of a triple-dip recession.

Meanwhile, Chancellor George Osborne could also bow to pressure from austerity-doves in his March budget update, but will also be well aware that Britain is now a step closer to losing its triple-A ratings crown.

The pound is falling sharply in global currency markets after the figures reinforced views that 2012 was a "lost year" for UK growth.

Frances O'Grady from the TUC:

Today's figures confirm our worst fears that the Chancellor's austerity plan has pushed the UK economy to the brink of an unprecedented triple-dip recession.

We are now mid-way through the coalition's term of office
and its economic strategy has been a complete disaster. The economy has grown by just 1%, real wages have fallen, and the manufacturing and construction sectors have shrunk. We remain as dependent on the City as we did before the financial crash.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.