Leader: Don’t bet the bank on Mark Carney

Until the government marries monetary activism with fiscal activism, Britain will not have a recovery worthy of the name.

We live in the age of the cult of the central banker. As governments of both left and right have retreated from economic interventionism, it is Ben Bernanke in the United States, Mario Draghi in Europe and Haruhiko Kuroda in Japan who have led the fightback against recession. Few of the new masters of the universe are more feted than the Canadian Mark Carney, who takes office as governor of the Bank of England on 1 July. Since being named as Mervyn King’s successor six months ago, he has been continually hailed as a saviour for the British economy. When it was pointed out to George Osborne that the Office for Budget Responsibility had forecast that the measures included in his most recent Budget would have “no impact on the level of GDP”, he replied that the estimate did not take into account the changes that Mr Carney would make. The Chancellor is a self-described “fiscal conservative” and “monetary activist”. He is banking on Threadneedle Street to deliver the recovery that he has not.

The appointment of Mr Carney (who is profiled by Alex Brummer on page 20) was a shrewd one. As our economics editor, David Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), has written, he was “the best person available” for the job. Untainted by any of the recent banking scandals, he performed admirably as governor of the Bank of Canada, cutting interest rates aggressively in March 2008, a year before the Bank of England and the European Central Bank did. Mr Osborne was right to prefer him to the City’s candidate of choice, the deputy governor Paul Tucker, who ignored early warnings of the manipulation of LIBOR by Barclays and responded sluggishly to the financial crisis.

But if Mr Carney, in the words of one of his defeated rivals, has been “launched on the nation as a messiah”, there are good reasons to believe he will be a false one. The base rate is already at a record low of 0.5 per cent, where it has been for more than four years, and the Bank has already performed £375bn of quantitative easing (QE), the equivalent of nearly a quarter of annual GDP. With growth still anaemic and inflation at just 2.4 per cent, there is a strong case for further loosening but Mr Carney will need to overcome the resistance of the MPC, which has voted against additional QE for 11 consecutive months. Unlike in Canada, where the governor has sole responsibility for policy, he will require the support of a majority of the other eight committee members, six of whom have consistently opposed new stimulus.

Where Mr Carney is more likely to prevail is in following the example of the US Federal Reserve and offering “forward guidance” on interest rates. This would entail a commitment to keep rates low until a certain economic threshold has been met (the Federal Reserve has adopted an unemployment target of 6.5 per cent). Although the markets already expect the base rate to remain at 0.5 per cent until 2016, this would have the beneficial effect of dampening expectations of a rise should growth exceed current forecasts. The principal reason to remain sceptical of Mr Carney’s potential is the inherent limits of monetary policy. When consumers are unwilling to borrow and banks unwilling to lend, it is the state that must act as a spender of last resort and stimulate growth through measures such as temporary tax cuts, housebuilding programmes and infrastructure spending. It is Mr Osborne’s reluctance to accept this truth that does much to explain the parlous performance of the British economy, which has grown just 1.1 per cent since 2010 and remains 2.6 percentage points below its pre-recession peak. The Chancellor is fond of citing the example of Mr Carney’s native Canada, which eliminated its deficit in just three years in the mid-1990s, but it was the concurrent boom in the US, not an “expansionary contraction”, that enabled it to do so.

As even the new governor has said, “Some people may be expecting central banks to do too much” – and none more so than Mr Osborne. Until the government marries monetary activism with fiscal activism, Britain will not have a recovery worthy of the name.

Incoming governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney arrives at the G7 finance ministers and central bank governors meeting in Aylesbury on 10 May, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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