Osborne, it's time for Plan B

A strategy rethink is in order.

Although the reporting cycle is a little unusual – the chancellor George Osborne only made his interim report in December – the parallels with, and potential lessons from, his private sector peers are interesting. Since he took the job (and it was a pretty senior post for a first board position) this young CFO has been struggling to explain exactly how UK Plc would achieve the more difficult half of balancing the books, i.e. growing revenues.

Somewhat predictably, the focus has therefore been on the slightly easier side of the equation, i.e. cutting costs. Thus far this approach seems to have done enough to appease watching investors and analysts. Partly due to problems being experienced by most of its major competitors, and the resulting lack of alternatives, UK Plc has been able to hang on to its investment and top credit rating. But the tough market conditions don’t appear to be easing and the outlook remains bleak. Thus Osborne, like most CFOs, will have to work extra hard to convince those watching that he has a credible plan to get UK PLC’s finances back on track.

Having already had to admit he will miss several key targets he set himself for getting the financial house in order, Osborne now needs to rethink his strategy for achieving growth. As most experienced CFOs would confirm, it is not possible to cut your way out of a slump. A sudden bout of reckless spending would be equally disastrous. But when results keep going against you (and last week’s ONS figures, showing we’re heading for a likely triple dip recession were not what Osborne projected) then it’s time to acknowledge the current strategy needs a rethink.

The rest of this article can be read on economia

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

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Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.