Osborne will struggle to debate the IMF head-on

Without being able to turn to now-slain canards, the chancellor's arguments fall apart.

George Osborne is to make one of the most direct responses yet to the IMF's interventions into UK politics this week, according to the Guardian's economics editor Larry Elliot:

The Treasury intends to reject the IMF's call for an easing in the pace of deficit reduction and will insist that any change in the strategy is both unnecessary and counterproductive. Alarmed at the flatlining of the British economy in 2011 and 2012, the IMF said last month it was time for Osborne to do more to boost economic growth and urged that he should rethink plans to cut the government's structural budget deficit by 1% of national income in 2013-14.

The chancellor was stung by the criticism, which was seized upon by shadow chancellor Ed Balls as evidence the government had damaged the economy with an over-aggressive austerity approach.

It's an argument which the chancellor is ill-equipped to take public, since the IMF is pushing the one policy which Osborne has no real response to: apolitically arguing for a modest increase in deficit-funded investment.

Elliot reports that Treasury officials will be relying on the time-worn "credibility with the financial markets" response. That's one which might play well with the public, but has little-to-no relation to the real world. In fact, Britain's Bond yields are depressed, just like the rest of the non-Eurozone developed world's, by the financial climate. Investors, scared of the prospect that they might lose everything in another bank run or stock market collapse, buy up bonds in countries which control their own currency just to have a safe place to store money. The situation has even been called a "reverse sovereign debt crisis", to reflect that fact that, in many cases, yields are so low that governments are being effectively payed to look after money.

(The rush to safe assets is also likely what prompted Apple to issue its own $17bn worth of bonds; multinational companies are safe enough that investors are happy to park their cash there, too.)

The Chancellor and Treasury are more at easy arguing within the British political context, where the mantra "more debt is bad" is so ingrained into the debate that they don't have to try to justify it. That's why the Conservative party feels they can torpedo any of Labour's plans just by pointing out that they are aiming to "borrow more to borrow less" (despite the fact that that's an entirely reasonable suggestion, as anyone who has consolidated debts, installed double glazing, or taken a season ticket loan will tell you): the opposition flounders in the face of such an attack, unsure whether to argue that they aren't really borrowing; that they are borrowing, but it will result in less future debt; or that they are borrowing and that's better than the alternative.

The IMF has no such qualms. It is telling the UK that borrowing more is good, and challenging the government to actually go back to first principles and explain why its debt reduction program must take eight years, compared to the initial plan of five. Why not nine? Or ten? Or 12?

Faced with having to justify his most basic beliefs, the chancellor is forced to retreat to canards long since slain. The "financial markets" are not rewarding the UK for austerity, nor will they punish it for slowing the pace of fiscal consolidation. In the meantime, the UK economy is very definitely feeling the hit of the lack of any coherent plan for growth over the last three years; and it feels like that pain will last a lot longer.

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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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