Carney charms MPs (once they get over his pay)

The next BoE governor reveals his plans for expectation management, but stays firmly conventional.

Against a background of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee deciding to keep interest rates flat at 0.5 per cent for another month — meaning it has now been four full years since the last rate change — the next governor of then Bank of England, Mark Carney, appeared before the Treasury select committee and and gave some of the first hints as to how he plans to run the country's central bank.

Of course, before he could do that, he had to justify his pay to the assembled MPs. Admittedly, Carney will be payed a lot: £480,000 a year base salary, plus a £250,000 "housing allowance", well above his predecessor Mervyn King's £305,000. But he defended his salary by pointing out that "I'm moving from one of the least expensive capital cities in the world – Ottawa – to one of the most expensive capital cities in the world," and by noting that his pay was in line with the outgoing head of the FSA, whose responsibilities are being merged with the Bank of England's.

David Ruffley MP was behind him, at least:

On the question of pay, you will be paid considerably less than recent England football managers and I think you are likely to have more success than them.

Eventually, Carney was allowed to talk about monetary policy, and revealed that, while he isn't going to be the loose-cannon central banker of our dreams — NGDP targeting and helicopter drops are out of the question — he does plan to be somewhat more aggressive than King.

In Canada, where Carney was the head of the central bank before his appointment here, there are formal reviews of the inflation target on a five-yearly timeframe. Here, by contrast, the target is — and has been since it was introduced fifteen years ago — for inflation to be within a one percentage point band of two per cent annually. MPs asked whether that target should be changed or loosened, and, while Carney did not directly offer any alternatives, he did argue that there should be that debate, albeit a "short" one.

The "high bar" that Carney thinks needs to be met before change can happen means that NGDP targeting — the idea of mandating the Bank to aim for a particular level of nominal (un-adjusted for inflation) GDP — is unlikely. He remains "far from convinced" that it could work. Similarly, while the USA has a dual mandate, requiring the Fed to target both inflation and unemployment, Carney isn't necessarily aiming for that as an end-stage for Britain either. He starts "from a position of considerable monetary stimulus to take up the slack", but believes that, for the time being, there is enough flexibility under the normal target to pull that off.

Where Carney marked the most substantial break with King was in his expressed belief that communication could be used more effectively to achieve the aims of the bank.

A huge part of monetary policy is expectations management — ensuring that people believe that the future economy is going to be certain way, and act on that belief. That's because many economic prophecies are self-fulfilling. If you tell everyone the stock market will crash, and have enough credibility that they act on it, then they will pull money out of the market and cause that very crash.

As a result, there's a huge difference between a central bank having a plan to keep interest rates low for a further two years, and a central bank saying it has a plan to keep interest rates low for a further two years. Carney understands that difference, and apparently plans to make the most of it.

No matter what happens, though, he has reiterated that he is only going to stay in charge for one five-year term, due to family commitments and a desire to get out of the high stakes world of central banking while he still can. While MPs expressed disbelief that someone could let something so prosaic as a family affect their job, Carney explained that he hoped to achieve all his goals in that span, and to make an exit "that is less newsworthy than my entrance".

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
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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