Goldman Sachs’ boss Lloyd Blankfein says we must stick with austerity

Enough to make you weep.

You wonder if George Osborne’s tears at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral were as much to do with sorrow at having adopted her not for turning mantle, as regret at the passing of a political hero who didn’t feel the need to speak estuary to up her popularity ratings.

Today you wonder whether the tears are flowing more copiously, or have just dried up in resignation on hearing from Goldman Sachs’ boss Lloyd Blankfein, sitting comfortably atop first quarter profits of £1.47bn (1.2% of UK government borrowing in 2012), that Osborne is stuck with his austerity approach, like it or lump it.

Talk about a rock and a hard place.  Speaking on Radio 4’s Today Programme, Blankfein fundamentally concurred with the conclusions of IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard last week, and the thinking behind the decisions of first Moody’s and latterly Fitch to downgrade the UK’s triple A credit rating.  If the country’s efforts to escape the downturn are to not to continue to resemble those of a spider climbing out of the bath, it needs an economic plan B.

“You would like it at this part of the cycle not to cut, to push out austerity and not to shrink the economy,” said Blankfein.  But, tough, he added. That course is only permitted to countries, which have done their housekeeping, balanced the books and not cranked up an enormous deficit, otherwise the markets will react badly.

“If you have a big deficit, you lose optionality,” said Blankfein. “The choices get taken away from you.”

So no chance then of that preferable loosening of the purse strings to let the economy breathe. Instead, continued snail-paced growth, with the likelihood of the further credit rating downgrades that entails, followed, in turn, by probable higher government borrowing costs and, consequently, even less flexibility for pump priming business and industry.

Reading between Mr Blankfein’s lines, businesses, especially small to medium-sized ones (SMEs), can’t expect the banks to stump up much more of the cash that government can’t provide either. The reason? They’re frightened, poor loves.

“Businesses are starving for cash and banks have cash idle, but they’re afraid, for want of a better word,” said Blankfein. And he understood their anxiety, he added, uttering the words you probably wouldn’t expect or hope to hear from a Jedi master among masters of the universe; that “lending money to businesses is one of the riskiest things you can do”.

Goldman Sachs, however, does a little something for the small business community. It won’t lend them the cash they’re starving for (they’re way too small and it’s way too frightening), but it will teach them new skills. Blankfein is over here to talk up and talk about his company’s programme for improving the general business nous of SMEs and “professionalising” them, an international offshoot of its USA 10,000 Small Businesses scheme.

Participating businesses in the UK do rate the initiative. But facing flat demand in a stagnating economy, those SMEs which have seen their or their customers’ credit ratings cut by the banks are likely to utter a hollow laugh, or shed an Osborne like tear, at any suggestion that such projects are going to do much to lift their or the UK’s fortunes in the near future. 

Lloyd Blankfein Photograph: Getty Images

Mike Jeffree edits the Timber Trades Journal.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.