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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The Conservative-DUP deal is great news for the DUP, but bad news for Theresa May

The DUP has secured a 10 per cent increase in Northern Ireland's budget in return for propping up the Prime Minister.

Well, that’s that then. Theresa May has reached an accord with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep herself in office. Among the items: the triple lock on pensions will remain in place, and the winter fuel allowance will not be means-tested across the United Kingdom. In addition, the DUP have bagged an extra £1bn of spending for Northern Ireland, which will go on schools, hospitals and roads. That’s more than a five per cent increase in Northern Ireland’s budget, which in 2016-7 was just £9.8bn.

The most politically significant item will be the extension of the military covenant – the government’s agreement to look after veterans of war and their families – to Northern Ireland. Although the price tag is small, extending priority access to healthcare to veterans is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland, where they have served not just overseas but in Northern Ireland itself. Sensitivities about the role of the Armed Forces in the Troubles were why the Labour government of Tony Blair did not include Northern Ireland in the covenant in 2000, when elements of it were first codified.

It gives an opportunity for the SNP…

Gina Miller, whose court judgement successfully forced the government into holding a vote on triggering Article 50, has claimed that an increase in spending in Northern Ireland will automatically entail spending increases in Wales and Scotland thanks to the Barnett formula. This allocates funding for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on spending in England or on GB-wide schemes.

However, this is incorrect. The Barnett formula has no legal force, and, in any case, is calculated using England as a baseline. However, that won’t stop the SNP MPs making political hay with the issue, particularly as “the Vow” – the last minute promise by the three Unionist party leaders during the 2014 independence referendum – promised to codify the formula. They will argue this breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the vow. 

…and Welsh Labour

However, the SNP will have a direct opponent in Wales. The Welsh Labour party has long argued that the Barnett formula, devised in 1978, gives too little to Wales. They will take the accord with Northern Ireland as an opportunity to argue that the formula should be ripped up and renegotiated.

It risks toxifying the Tories further

The DUP’s socially conservative positions, though they put them on the same side as their voters, are anathema to many voters in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the DUP’s positions on abortion and equal marriage will not be brought to bear on rUK, the association could leave a bad taste in the mouth for voters considering a Conservative vote next time. Added to that, the bumper increase in spending in Northern Ireland will make it even harder to win support for continuing cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which is moot if the Conservatives U-Turn on austerity

Of course, all of these problems will fade if the Conservatives further loosen their deficit target, as they did last year. Turning on the spending taps in England, Scotland and Wales is probably their last, best chance of turning around the grim political picture.

It’s a remarkable coup for Arlene Foster

The agreement, which ticks a number of boxes for the DUP, caps off an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster. The significant increase in spending in Northern Ireland – equivalent to the budget of the entirety of the United Kingdom going up by £70bn over two years  – is only the biggest ticket item. The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland appeals to two longstanding aims of the DUP. The first is to end “Northern Ireland exceptionalism” wherever possible, and the second is the red meat to their voters in offering better treatment to veterans.

It feels like a lifetime ago when you remember that in March 2017, Foster was a weakened figure having led the DUP into its worst election result since the creation of the devolved assembly at Stormont.

The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator.

Conservatives are hoping it will be plain sailing for them, and the DUP from now on should take note. 

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.

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