Strong services data for July indicates health in the sector

The services PMI for July came in at 60.2.

Market Economics has released the purchasing managers' index data for the services sector in the month of July. It shows a sharp increase in activity in the sector, dominant in the UK economy: the index stands at 60.2, well above the 57.2 forecast. It is the best growth services have seen since 2006.

The PMI is compiled from data contributed by purchasing managers across Britain, and values of above 50 represent increasing growth in the sector, while values below represent increasing contraction. A value of 60.2 thus represents extremely strong growth for the services sector; and, given the strength of that sector in the national economy, bodes well for overall growth in the third quarter of 2013.

The below chart shows quite how high the reading was, and also how well the PMI data – an incomplete but speedy measure based on survey data – tracks the ONS's official estimate of the sector.

Today's release follows that of the PMIs for the construction and manufacturing sectors, each similarly strong. The former came in at 57.0, up from 51.0 in June, while the latter came in at 54.6, up from 52.9 the month before. Both of those figures represent the fastest growth in their sectors for years, and indicated that the slump is well and truly coming to an end. Markit's chief economist, Paul Smith, says that the service sector "appears to have genuine momentum". "Although an early call on one month's data," he adds, "the forward-looking elements from the survey point to a further strengthening of GDP in Q3 as the UK heads towards 'escape velocity' and self-sustaining economic expansion."

Those forward-looking elements include measures of backlogs in orders, as well as questions of business confidence. Backlogs, which indicate pressure on companies to expand their production, had the sharpest rise since February 2000, and have now risen four months in a row. Business confidence also strengthened, to its highest level for over a year, although that still leaves it well below even the burst in optimism immediately following the recession, let alone the typical sensibility in the mid-2000s.

The pound saw a slight boost following the release of the news, rising against the dollar from 1.532 to 1.535.

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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.