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.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide