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QE, austerity, trade… has the UK anything left to prop it up?

"No action" is not an option.

New Statesman
Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney. Photograph: Getty Images

You would have to travel a long way to find anyone more safety-conscious than a coal miner. So you might have found it strange that when steel pit props were introduced miners objected with a ferocity that shocked management. Their reasoning was simple; before a wooden pit prop broke it gave out a characteristic creak. Steel props shattered without any warning signal. Your chances of getting away before the cave-in became vanishingly small.

So where’s the creaking pit prop in the UK economy? You wouldn’t have to look much further than the behaviour of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank of England. The committee seems to have been intent on stealing the thunder of the "Greatest Central Banker of His Generation", otherwise known as Mark Carney, even before he has had time to warm the seat of the out-going Mervyn King. The MPC has been implementing Carney’s favoured ideas (promoting bank lending) whilst laying the ground to stop him increasing the Quantitative Easing (QE) programme by voting Sir Mervyn down on the issue four meetings in a row. At the same time Charles Bean, a voting member of the MPC, has, once again, been waving the spectre of negative interest rates in the face of the markets. As the old leader faded others have jumped into the vacuum before the new one arrived.

But the reality is that the lending policies won’t deliver the impact that some expect. The Funding for Lending Scheme is tiny compared to the size of the overall economy whilst some of the Help To Buy schemes meant to promote the housing market look positively dangerous if interest rates start to rise. Besides, consumers, who are seeing their real incomes decline, are still historically geared-up to their eyeballs and are highly sensitive to even small interest rate movements. They aren’t likely to throw a credit party whilst government expenditure is continually cut in real terms during the next five years, a policy to which both the UK coalition and the opposition parties are committed. In short, as in the past four years, housing approvals are going nowhere – that prop has been taken away.

The spending freeze has reinforced the sense of economic hibernation to the point that there is no obvious domestic engine for growth in the UK. To compound the situation our nearest and arguably most important trading partner, Europe, is still in the grips of a decline. Either Mr Carney will get round the MPC nay-sayers and extend QE to a level unthinkable even to the Japanese or politicians are going to have to start spending again; such a volte face would provide the Labour Party with a purpose and relevance that it has now lost.

"No action" is not an option. The electorate won’t have it, especially when they can organize themselves through social media on a level and with ferocity never seen before. Either way, by design or by accident, the pound would take the strain if more and more stimulus is poured into the economy just to prop it up. The defining moment for Mark Carney may yet be how he handles a sterling crisis that will feel like a mineshaft collapsing in on him. The creak is there if he wants to hear it.