Is the double-dip no more? Does it matter?

Maybe, and no. No it does not.

Last Friday, the ONS revised its estimates of the size of British construction output over 2012. It now thinks that the construction sector shrank by 5 per cent in the first quarter of that year, compared to the 5.4 per cent contraction it had previously estimated. (Although that's good news, the picture is less rosy for the other three quarters of the year, which were all revised downwards.)

That upward revision would be enough to bring the overall growth figure for Q1 2012 to exactly zero; hence the Saturday Mail story dubbing it "The double-dip that never was! Osborne gets a surprise boost as 'growth' was 0.0% rather than -0.1%".

There are two things to say at this point. Firstly, the nitpicking: the ONS is also due to announce the latest revisions to the service sector on the 23rd of this month (estimates for production, the third main component, were published on the 9th). Those revisions could be in either direction, and, given the size of services in the overall economy, it would not take a large downward swing to wipe out the "gains" from production. So it's too early to say for certain that the double-dip has been erased.

But the broader point is that it does not matter, and has never mattered, whether the economy grew by 0.1 per cent, didn't grow, or shrank by 0.1 per cent. What is important is that Britain has stagnated for the better part of two years running now. Anaemic growth is just as bad as a mild recession – and in some ways worse, because while a recession may be expected to spring back into recovery at some point, stagnation can last for decades. Just ask Japan.

That's the reason I've focused on the description of our economy as "corrugated". We focus so much on the ups and downs, with cheers alternating on either side of the aisle, that we neglect to take a step back and look at what the overall trend is. The fact that the economy was precisely stagnant in the first quarter of 2012 doesn't change that trend for the better; it makes it overwhelmingly clear that stagnation remains the reality we live in.

Of course, some will claim that this revision matters anyway, because it means that we never had the technical recession which garnered so much bad press last year. But – you can guess where this is going – technical recessions are an alarmingly misleading thing to focus on in an economic environment like ours. Because, again, in a corrugated economy, whether a particular consecutive pair of quarters displays slightly negative growth is basically down to chance. What is not down to chance is the overall pattern.

This is what our economy looks like, right now:

Until and unless that flat black line stops being quite so astonishingly flat, there is little to celebrate. Arguing about the size of the kinks within it is little more than trivia.

A construction site. The sector's performance in 2012 was revised up, causing some to dismiss the double dip recession. 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.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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