Whether or not you include oil, Osborne's economic record is atrocious

Double-dip or not, stagnation is here for sure.

Earlier this week I wrote that overly focusing on the prospect of a "triple dip" recession was blinding too many to the equally damaging prospect of continued stagnation. Maybe I was too specific; it seems that some are still focusing on the last recession (the one we now call the double-dip).

The Telegraph quotes the chief economist of Henderson Global Investors, Simon Ward, who argues that "Britain never had a double dip recession". Building on the recent upward revisions to the ONS' estimates of growth in 2012, Ward says that:

The “phantom” recessions reflected continuing weak North Sea oil and gas extraction and when that was stripped out, it revealed that there had never been a ‘double-dip’ in the UK onshore economy.

Mr Ward said North Sea oil production is supply-driven, and while it has been weak because of reserves depletion and unusual maintenance shutdowns, "these are of no relevance to the wider economy so it is reasonable to strip out the North Sea when assessing underlying trends".

Of course, if it's necessary to retrospectively strip out resource extraction from estimates of the economy, it's necessary to strip it out entirely. That would present a rather different view of, for instance, the economic competency of Margaret Thatcher, presiding over the original North Sea oil boom. It would also be a blow for advocates of fracking, as their desired resource boom would be excluded from the metrics.

As it is, the ONS already produces a metric for GDP growth excluding oil and gas (it's series KLH8, if you want to check it out). It only goes back to 1997, so we can't test the Thatcher proposition, but it's pretty clear that our oil and gas industries have been declining for quite some time. Every time they've had an effect since 2003, it's been negative, and even before then, it was rarely hugely positive. It's fair to say that, if ignoring resource extraction makes Osborne look economically competent, it makes Gordon Brown look like a genius chancellor, consistently achieving even more growth than he is already given credit for.

As it is, we don't strip out those industries unless we're making a very specific point, because they are part of the economy, and GDP is supposed to be a measure of the whole economy, not just the parts which are reflective of "underlying trends".

But again, this is all arguing a moot point. Even if we did strip out the effects of oil and gas extraction from the first quarter of 2012 only, thus ensuring that George Osborne avoided a technical recession by the narrowest margin possible, he would still have a terrible record on growth. The real world growth figures for our double dip were contractions of 0.3, 0.1 and 0.3 per cent respectively for Q4 2011 and Q1+2 2012. The figures Ward wants to use instead show a contraction of 0.2 per cent, then perfect stagnation, and then a contraction of 0.3 per cent.

In no world is 0 per cent growth (and, as I've said before, contraction in per capita GDP) between two quarters of contraction acceptable. Yet by focusing so heavily on the difference between -0.1 per cent and 0 per cent, Osborne and his defenders are able to claim that it's just a statistical quirk that gives him his bad reputation, rather than something far more intrinsic.

Double dip… a bactrian camel with its newborn calf in Budapest, Hungary. 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.

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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories