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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The three avoidable mistakes that Theresa May has made in the Brexit negotiations

She ignored the official Leave campaign, and many Remainers, in pursuing Brexit in the way she has.

We shouldn’t have triggered Article 50 at all before agreeing an exit deal

When John Kerr, the British diplomat who drafted Article 50 wrote it, he believed it would only be used by “a dictatorial regime” that, having had its right to vote on EU decisions suspended “would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out”.

The process was designed to maximise the leverage of the remaining members of the bloc and disadvantage the departing state. At one stage, it was envisaged that any country not ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be expelled under the process – Article 50 is not intended to get “the best Brexit deal” or anything like it.

Contrary to Theresa May’s expectation that she would be able to talk to individual member states, Article 50 is designed to ensure that agreement is reached “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”, as I wrote before the referendum result.

There is absolutely no reason for a departing nation to use Article 50 before agreement has largely been reached. A full member of the European Union obviously has more leverage than one that is two years away from falling out without a deal. There is no reason to trigger Article 50 until you’re good and ready, and the United Kingdom’s negotiating team is clearly very far from either being “good” or “ready”.

As Dominic Cummings, formerly of Vote Leave, said during the campaign: “No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what the process was going to yield…that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

If we were going to trigger Article 50, we shouldn’t have triggered it when we did

As I wrote before Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, 2017 is very probably the worst year you could pick to start leaving the European Union. Elections across member states meant the bloc was in a state of flux, and those elections were always going to eat into the time. 

May has got lucky in that the French elections didn’t result in a tricky “co-habitation” between a president of one party and a legislature dominated by another, as Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a majority for his new party, République en Marche.

It also looks likely that Angela Merkel will clearly win the German elections, meaning that there won’t be a prolonged absence of the German government after the vote in September.

But if the British government was determined to put the gun in its own mouth and pull the trigger, it should have waited until after the German elections to do so.

The government should have made a unilateral offer on the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom right away

The rights of the three million people from the European Union in the United Kingdom were a political sweet spot for Britain. We don’t have the ability to enforce a cut-off date until we leave the European Union, it wouldn’t be right to uproot three million people who have made their lives here, there is no political will to do so – more than 80 per cent of the public and a majority of MPs of all parties want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – and as a result there is no plausible leverage to be had by suggesting we wouldn’t protect their rights.

If May had, the day she became PM, made a unilateral guarantee and brought forward legislation guaranteeing these rights, it would have bought Britain considerable goodwill – as opposed to the exercise of fictional leverage.

Although Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s proposal on mutually shared rights has worried many EU citizens, the reality is that, because British public opinion – and the mood among MPs – is so sharply in favour of their right to remain, no one buys that the government won’t do it. So it doesn’t buy any leverage – while an early guarantee in July of last year would have bought Britain credit.

But at least the government hasn’t behaved foolishly about money

Despite the pressure on wages caused by the fall in the value of the pound and the slowdown in growth, the United Kingdom is still a large and growing economy that is perfectly well-placed to buy the access it needs to the single market, provided that it doesn’t throw its toys out of the pram over paying for its pre-agreed liabilities, and continuing to pay for the parts of EU membership Britain wants to retain, such as cross-border policing activity and research.

So there’s that at least.

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.

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