ONS: GDP down by 0.3% in Q4 2012

Estimates present problems for the government.

The ONS has released the preliminary estimates for GDP growth in the fourth quarter of 2012: it fell by 0.3 per cent. That's worse than the OBR/Treasury's forecast of a 0.1 per cent contraction, but the Treasury says the news was "not unexpected".

The OBR will be able to defend its record somewhat, because 0.2 percentage points of the contraction are due to a significant reduction in oil and gas extraction. The ONS explains that this is resulting from "an extended and later than usual maintenance period at the UK’s largest North Sea oil field". Expect a number of commentators to rapidly become experts on North Sea oil, and why the shock should or shouldn't let the chancellor off the hook.

Nonetheless, this represents the only the latest time the OBR has been overly optimistic about GDP projections. Economic forecasts are usually wrong; but they are usually wrong symmetrically. The persistent bias — mathematically, that is — must eventually raise questions about the OBR's model.

The hit to oil extraction led to mining output falling by 10.2 per cent in the quarter, the biggest decline on record, and led to the production sector overall falling by 1.8 per cent — a contraction which was exacerbated by the continued steady contraction in manufacturing, down 1.5 per cent.

The news was less bad in other sectors, but agriculture, forestry and fishing experienced still a contraction of 0.6 per cent, while the service sector was flat. Some of that stagnation in services may be due to some "fall-back" following the Olympic games, as the impact of spending being concentrated on one period comes back to bite. The one top-level sector which experienced growth was construction, where output increased by 0.3 per cent.

The overall contraction presents the strong possibility that the UK is going to have a "triple-dip" recession, if the next quarter is negative as well. Such a sustained period of bouncing between recession and mere stagnation would be unprecedented in recent economic history. Even if we don't have a triple-dip, growth for the whole of 2012 remains exactly flat, and there are no high expectations for growth going in to 2013. We have a corrugated economy, going up and back down periodically, but with a clear — and terrifying — trend of stagnation.

The Chancellor in Davos in 2012. 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 Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.