Osborne's bank raid reconsidered

Was the "smash and grab" actually so bad?

When Osborne re-arranged the accounts between the Bank of England and the Treasury to put the £37bn profit of the QE programme on the nation's books, it was widely seen as a swindle, with our own David Blanchflower calling it a:

Smash-and-grab raid on the Bank of England to make his borrowing look lower.

But the FT's David Keohane (yes, second time today) wonders if the fading importance of central bank independence means that we should reconsider that assessment. Keohane writes:

We still find it hard to view the “raid” itself in any sort of harsh negative light.

We did and do acknowledge the timing was… awkward… but essentially it’s still accounting — the shifting of figures between a parent and a subsidiary. If anything, the “raid” has made the whole process far more transparent.

More generally, the idea that central bank independence might necessarily be eroded, and that it might be a good thing, was until recently taboo. But it is becoming more and more accepted that a central bank’s status is dependent on the economic realities it exists in.

The two big problems highlighted by Osborne's raid were that it blurred the lines between monetary and fiscal policy, and that it could come back to bite in the future. The former's looking like less of a concern in the current climate, but the latter actually might not be that bad. Even if it has already happened.

Keohane quotes Bank of America Merril Lynch's John Wraith:

As a result of the dramatic spike higher in yields that occurred over the first week or so of the New Year, the mark-to-market value of the BoE’s portfolio of Gilts acquired through QE over the past four years dropped by more than £7bn.

The Treasury/BoE is still earning £1bn a year month of positive carry — the value of holding the bonds — which ought to soften the blow. But ultimately, the fear sparked by an accounting change may prove to have been a storm in a teapot.

The Bank of England. 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.