Chance of triple-dip falls on strong UK manufacturing

Eurozone contraction continues.

Markit economics has released PMIs for manufacturing across Europe, offering a snapshot of the state of the sector. It remains in ill-health, but the general picture is of a bottoming-out — it may still be shrinking, but the rate of decline is slowing.

(Standard explanation: PMIs, purchasing managers indices, are based on interviews with purchasing managers in various sectors. They aim to determine the level of activity in those sectors, and present them on a scale where 50 is equal to no change in activity, over 50 means increasing activity, and under 50 means decreasing activity. The indexes are not official measures of activity, but are generally extremely accurate predictors)

Spain enters its 21st straight month with a PMI under 50, but it is steadily rising; the reduction in new orders is slowest since June 2011. It's not good news — it's not even a turning point — but it's less bad news than there has been for a while.

Spanish manufacturing index

A similar story is evident in Italy; again, the manufacturing PMI hit a ten-month high [47.8 up from 46.7], but continued to imply contraction in the sector. While the fall in new orders tapered off, though, the pace of job cuts increased, though Markit reports that, anecdotally, the main reason seems to be non-replacement of voluntary leavers. That's about as good as contraction gets.

Italian manufacturing index

France is the darkest spot in the releases. The index fell to 42.9, indicating rapid contraction, and has been below 50 since the summer of 2011. New orders fell even faster — the sharpest rate since the great recession four years ago — and Markit's Jack Kennedy notes that it "suggests further steep falls in output are likely".

French manufacturing index

Conversly — and demonstrating again the split fortunes that we discussed last year — data for the UK demonstrates mild expansion. A PMI of 50.8, down from 51.2, is not ideal in what is still supposed the rapid upswing as we come out of a recession, but it does hint at continued strength in the sector. More importantly, it calms fears that we may be heading for a triple dip recession.

The rise in domestic manufacturing comes mainly from the continued strength of the consumer goods sector — and is partially offset by a contraction in investment goods. While in the short term the economy doesn't "care" which of those spending is focused on, if manufacturing of investment goods continues to shrink, as it has for the last six months barring a brief spike over the winter, then the hangover will be painful when that lack of investment bites.

UK manufacturing index

George Osborne inspects some manufacturing. More of it is happening now than before. 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 three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

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