People are finally spending more on their cards

Is this the sign we've been waiting for?

I may just have spoken to the most optimistic and cheery senior UK-based banker for many a year.

Dave Chan, CEO of Barclaycard Europe, is not just chirpy about the prospects for UK plc; he says that there is evidence going back to the second quarter of the year that we may have turned a corner. In short, people are spending more on their cards.

In May and June, "nominal spend" – that is expenditure taking account of inflation – of Barclaycard cardholders rose for four months in a row for the first time in three years. Given the importance of consumer spending as an engine of growth and with expenditure now on a gentle upward trend, we may indeed be witnessing the recovery starting to gain momentum.

That is however only part of the story. The clever number-crunchers at Barclays have been analysing just what exactly we are using our cards to purchase. There are signs that discretionary expenditure is rising including purchases such as foreign holidays Perhaps the real clincher to back up Chan’s optimism relates to card expenditure on home improvements.

In the past couple of months he says that there has been a big uplift in expenditure in this sector.

Meantime, UK unemployment remains stubbornly high at 7.8 per cent. If the Bank of England forecasts for GDP growth are accurate – and here it has a decidedly mixed track record – we will only enjoy growth of 1.4 per cent this year and 2.3 per cent next year.

For those of us old enough to have lived through economic upturns following past recessions, such relatively low rates of growth are way below the growth levels witnessed during the Thatcher second term and Blair’s first term.

The chances of UK unemployment falling below 7 per cent and the trigger for a change in UK monetary policy – that means higher interest rates to you and me – is slim in the next three years. That inevitably will impact the prospects for the share prices of the major UK banks.

As for home improvements major players, such as B&Q’s parent Kingfisher, there may be renewed interest in how its share price performs. Analysts following Kingfisher are divided with six rating the stock a sell, seven say hold with 13 recommending a buy.

Time will tell if Chan’s grounds for optimism are well founded.

I am glad to report, that at no time during the course of a lengthy conversation did he use the phrase “green shoots” (Norman Lamont circa the 1991 recession).

A handful of credit cards. Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.