Moody's downgrade might be symbolic - but it's still correct

What does it mean, if anything?

Moody’s downgrade of Britain’s credit rating, from AAA to AA1, is largely symbolic, akin to a sticking plaster falling off a major unhealed gash. It will have no effect on the cost of borrowing, so what does it mean, if anything?

First, it was an anomaly that America and France had been downgraded months ago, and that little bankrupt Britain could sail on merrily, as if the only boat in the race without a leak, was plainly ludicrous.

Second, the fact is that there is a major hole below the waterline in the nation’s finances that isn’t being fixed. But compare 600,000 new jobs being created in the last year by the private sector, of which half are full-time: either the figures are wrong, or thousands of jobs have been lost at the same time, by bankrupt retailers and lost manufacturing output.

Third, sterling was on the slide in the FX markets before Moody’s even blew their faint-hearted whistle. This was after Mervyn King of the BoE voted for more QE, despite the fact that he is already sitting atop one-third of the national debt, and could easily topple off this pile of irredeemable IOUs.

Fourth, the national debt, which was meant to be coming down, is now going back up again. Osborne’s cuts were too little, and now are seen to be too late. But the Cameroons are such a lot of new-drippy Old Etonians that they are increasingly seen as a generation that hasn’t got the balls to pick up a sharp axe and really wield it. No pain, no gain.

As a result of reasons one to four, number five is that the economy is going nowhere fast except down a big, black hole called the IMF. Sort it Osborne, or quit! The answer is simple: slash government expenditure and taxation on March 20, not in some mealy-mouthed way as you are currently posturing, but in a determined and dramatic way.

Slash the Gordian knot of ever-advancing EU-driven socialist-bureaucracy! Cut the chain that is holding back the UK private sector, the people who have had proper jobs all their lives! Unlike you miserable lot in government, who have never had a proper productive job at all.

After all, the only man in Britain who is going to say you are wrong to do such a thing, is the utterly stupid, pathetic and ludicrous Ed Balls. And he is the one who assiduously dug the nation over many years into this great hole in the first place! But then, I suppose, he has never had a proper job either - a kindred spirit, perhaps?

This first appeared on Spear's.

Photograph: Getty Images

Stephen Hill writes for Spear's

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.