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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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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