Osborne and Carney should enjoy their day in the sun

The UK fast becoming a stand-out developed economy performer. Growth is heading into 2014 at a healthy 3 to 4 per cent, even in the face of Osborne’s austerity.

If last week’s markets were quiet and range-bound due to Thanksgiving celebrations and a paucity of frontline data, this week could hardly present a more different proposition. Monday saw a strong US Manufacturing ISM survey, and yesterday the RBA decided to sit on its hands, but the committee was once again at pains to point out that they view the AUD’s strength as "uncomfortably high", with a "lower level of exchange rate likely to be needed to achieve balanced growth in the economy". They also highlighted that "public demand is forecast to be quite weak" and "considerable uncertainty surrounds this outlook" (for a pick-up in activity). More rate cuts are coming in Australia as Asia slows. The RBA are very perceptive - they realise that the Chinese 3rd plenum, although very constructive in the medium-term (10-20 years in Chinese terms!) implies slower growth in the short-term, as the economy rebalances away from export-fest to the kind of consumer-lead growth that is all too familiar to us in the UK.

We are entering a dangerous era of change for global growth, with the onus being passed to developed markets to take over as locomotives. Really?! With an economic block the size of the Eurozone destined to flatline for years to come, or implode, and a US economy that will struggle to reach escape velocity as the Fed removes the punch bowl, this looks like a vain hope. Just look at the effect on the US housing market of even the suggestion of tapering and a 100 bp rise in mortgage rates this summer-and the housing recovery has played a very significant part in what meagre growth we have seen thus far.

Against this backdrop, Messrs. Osborne and Carney are beginning to look pretty lucky (and smart actually) with the UK fast becoming the stand-out developed economy performer. Growth is heading into 2014 at a healthy 3 to 4 per cent annualized clip, even in the face of Osborne’s austerity, which is another good story. In his 5 December Autumn Statement, I expect Chancellor Osborne to be able to announce that the OBR has made a £13bn reduction in its official forecast for the 2013/2014 government deficit, compared to its March forecast, i.e. 5.8 per cent of GDP, rather than 6.9 per cent, and also to make reductions in deficit forecasts for the future. I would also expect upward revisions to growth prognoses.

Governor Carney seems to be fully on-board in helping out the Chancellor, with repeated promises that rates will stay lower for longer than recent positive data surprises would otherwise suggest. Last week’s decision by the Bank of England to restrict its Funding for Lending Scheme to the provision of cheap liquidity to banks for business lending, rather than also for household mortgages, also implies a concrete, and rather subtle, message that the Bank will use macro-prudential tools to cool parts of the economy if it deems this necessary - and not conventional monetary tightening. This having been said, I’d say this change in policy will have negligible effect on the UK housing market, as cheap liquidity is currently plentiful anyway, and the government’s two Help to Buy schemes will be the real policy drivers of the housing market - eventually achieving the Nirvana of increased home building, as well as the feel-good factor from higher prices that British homeowners crave like the next heroin high. I would be extremely surprised if Help to Buy was altered at all before the next election in May 2015.

The real question is whether the UK can continue to thrive in the face of headwinds from Europe, Asia and possibly the US.

Mr Osborne is starting to look pretty lucky. Photograph: Getty Images.

Chairman of  Saxo Capital Markets Board

An Honours Graduate from Oxford University, Nick Beecroft has over 30 years of international trading experience within the financial industry, including senior Global Markets roles at Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank. Nick was a member of the Bank of England's Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee.

More of his work can be found here.

Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.