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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle