Retail sales drop year-on-year

Corrugated bottom approaches.

ONS statistics released today show that, retail sales in January 2013 have fallen in quantity by 0.6 per cent year-on-year, the first year-on-year contraction since August 2011. The three-month trend remains positive, with the most recent quarter up 0.1 per cent on the same quarter last year. The value of retail sales is also on a downward trend, with the month-on-month and quarter-on-quarter sales declining.

The ONS explains that "the timeliness of these retail sales statistics, which are published just two weeks after the end of each month, makes them an important early economic indicator", and this month, they indicate a worrying decline in consumer spending. That said, compared to last January, which saw a 1.6 per cent decline year-on-year amid snowmaggedon, the news could be much worse.

This data must be read in conjunction with the earlier PMI indicators, which suggested a contraction in construction but growth in manufacturing and services. The UK economy is hovering, as it has for a while, on the border between growth and contraction. It will be the merest of technicalities as to whether we end up with a technical triple dip recession, but either way the picture is not rosy.

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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.