IMF: Britain should consider "flexibility" in Plan A

"Consideration should be given to greater near-term flexibility in the fiscal adjustment path."

The IMF has cut its forecasts of UK GDP growth in 2013 and 2014 by 0.3 percentage points for each year, to 0.7 and 1.5 per cent respectively. The figure for 2013 is still 0.1pp above the OBR's own forecast for 2013, but where the OBR sees growth picking up rapidly – rising to 1.8 per cent in 2014, and then 2.8 per cent by 2018  the IMF is predicting a slower recovery.

The predictions come from the Fund's World Economic Outlook, its biannual publication looking at the global economic situation. Writing about the UK, the WEO says;

The recovery is progressing slowly, notably in the context of weak external demand and ongoing fiscal consolidation… Domestic rebalancing from the public to the private sector is being held back by deleveraging, tight credit conditions and economic uncertainty, while declining productivity growth and high unit labour costs are holding back much needed external rebalancing…
Consideration should be given to greater near-term flexibility in the fiscal adjustment path.

Merely calling for "consideration" to be given – rather than a demand for immediate "flexibility in the fiscal adjustment path" – provides an out, of sorts, for the Government. Expect to hear the chancellor confirming that he has "considered" the IMF's advice, but decided not to act on it, due to (something). Indeed, the FT cites Treasury sources already spinning the news, claiming the word choice "showed the fund was still sitting on the fence."

But as the Guardian reports, Oliver Blanchard, the Fund's Chief economist, did tell a press conference in the US today that:

The IMF would hold talks with the UK government in the coming months, to "see what can be done" about the pace of deficit reduction.
"In the face of very weak private demand it is time to consider adjustment to the original fiscal plan," Blanchard explained.

The WEO was more positive about the monetary side of the chancellor's record. Although it cautions that the Bank of England may find it hard to unwind the positions it has taken throughout four years of QE, which might force it to face significant trade-offs when it comes to fighting inflation in the future, it also praises the overall strategy of "monetary activism with fiscal responsibility and supply side reform".

That advice goes against the intervention of former MPC member Adam Posen, who today warned of the limits of Mark Carney's potential as Bank of England governor. But it gives Osborne enough cover to struggle on for a while longer.

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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.