Fitch agency downgrades UK credit rating from AAA to AA+

More trouble for "downgraded Chancellor" George Osborne.

The Fitch agency has joined Moody's in downgrading Britain's credit rating, citing a "weaker economic and fiscal outlook".

The country has moved from AAA, the top rating, to AA+. However, Fitch says that outlook is now "stable" meaning that Britain is unlikely to be downgraded further. (The third agency, Standard & Poor's, still gives Britain a triple-A score.)

As Staggers editor George Eaton noted when Moody's downgraded Britain, George Osborne repeatedly staked his economic credibility of the views of the ratings agencies when the coalition came to power. He wrote:

For Osborne, who chose to make our credit rating the ultimate metric of economic stability, it is a humiliating moment. Not my words, but his. During one of his rhetorical assaults against Labour in August 2009, he warned: "Britain faces the humiliating possibility of losing its international credit rating". Rarely before or after becoming Chancellor, did Osborne miss an opportunity to remind us just how important he thought the retention of our AAA rating was.

The Treasury responded to the news by reaffirming its commitment to austerity in the name of deficit reduction. A spokesperson told the BBC:

"This is a stark reminder that the UK cannot simply run away from its problems, or refuse to deal with a legacy of debt built up over a decade.

"Fitch themselves say the government's 'continued policy commitment to reducing the underlying budget deficit' is one of the main reasons UK debt now has a 'stable' outlook.

"Though it is taking time, we are fixing this country's economic problems. The deficit is down by a third (since 2010), a million and a quarter new private sector jobs have been created and the credibility we have earned means households and businesses are benefitting from near record low interest rates."

However, as the New Statesman's economics editor - and former member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy committee - David Blanchflower wrote in March:

Our downgraded Chancellor lost the UK’s triple-A credit rating because he has delivered neither on growth nor on the deficit. In June 2010, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecast that growth in the UK would be 2.3 per cent in 2011 and 2.8 per cent in 2012. What we got was 0.9 per cent and -0.1 per cent.

The government hasn’t dealt with the country’s debts – far from it. The coalition has boasted so many times that it has reduced the deficit by a quarter but the reality is that this was done primarily by slashing capital spending, which has had a devastating impact on the construction industry. And the deficit is now rising, as was confirmed in the 20 March Budget.

George Osborne stares at a wheel. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

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