Retail sales up: but then January-March has been an exception

We shouldn't call recovery just yet.

With the British Retail Consortium showing that retail sales increased in March by 3.7 per cent on a total basis and by 1.9 per cent on a like-for-like basis, many are now suggesting that the beleaguered retail sector is seemingly moving into recovery mode. The March numbers follow on from an upbeat February and both have helped to contribute to first quarter sales growth which was the strongest of any three-month period since December 2009.

While such momentum is clearly welcome, in order assess the true strength of the recovery the figures do need to be set in a wider context.

With the earlier timing of Easter this year, it was always inevitable that March would be a good month for sales growth. What is perhaps surprising, however, is that given this sales growth was not higher. Indeed, despite the boost of Easter, both the total and like-for-like growth rates were relatively subdued to those seen in February. So, if anything, the March numbers represent a slight deterioration in growth momentum rather than a strengthening.

The other point to which attention needs to be drawn is that the growth was fairly unevenly distributed. Food retailers, helped in large part by inflation, saw some good gains. However, the clothing sector had a torrid time as the unseasonal weather drove down demand for spring merchandise.

Then there is the unusually buoyant demand for electricals. On this front, while there is inevitably strong demand for products like tablets, some of the growth reported by retailers is likely to have come from the collapse of chains like Comet and Jessops – the sales of which have been reallocated to those left standing. Neither the British Retail Consortium nor the Office for National Statistics adjust for such failures which means, in essence, that their aggregation of growth reported by retailers becomes divorced from a proper reading of actual underlying consumer spending growth. While the impact of this methodological anomaly should not be overstated, it is worth bearing in mind when assessing the growth figures.

None of this takes away, of course, from the strong growth seen in February which will, inevitably, be pointed to as a sign that things are getting better. However, even here context remains important. The February numbers were partly flattered by a weaker January when some spending was postponed due to the winter weather. This was especially true of fashion where not only did depleted footfall on high streets dint sales, but the cold temperatures were out of kilter with the spring stock which was on the shop floor towards the end of the month. Comparatively, most of February was fairly mild which encouraged consumers out onto the high street and into buying spring fashion lines.

So, in many ways, the first three months of this year have been fairly exceptional – in terms of the weather, in the timing of Easter, and in the amount of churn with various failures in the sector. As such, this is perhaps not the best period over which to pronounce that a meaningful and sustained retail recovery has begun. Only when we get into May and June will we have a more rounded picture of retail prospects.

Retail sales increased in March. Photograph: Getty Images

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

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.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle