Osborne should beware of a triple-dip recession

The government shouldn't assume that "the good news will keep coming".

One can hardly blame the government for seeking to convince voters that today's GDP figures prove that we're "on the right track". Growth of 1 per cent in the third quarter, the highest quarterly growth rate since 2007, is superficially impressive (the bounce back from the bank holiday added around 0.5 per cent, while Olympic ticket sales added 0.2 per cent) and makes it easier for George Osborne to argue that the economy is "healing".

But to borrow Cameron's phrase from yesterday, the government shouldn't assume "that the good news will keep coming". A significant number of economists believe it is possible or even probable that the economy will contract in quarter four (in what our economics editor David Blanchflower has called a "triple-dip recession"). A combination of further spending cuts, rising energy prices, and recession in the eurozone means that growth is likely to remain anaemic or non-existent.

Vicky Redwood of Capital Economics, for instance, said:

As the Olympic effects unwind, it is still possible that the economy contracts again in Q4. Indeed, the business surveys have been painting a slightly gloomier picture, suggesting that underlying output is still stagnating or even falling slightly.

Chris Williamson of the data provider Markit, said:

The government will most likely make the most out of this good news, but unfortunately it is unlikely that the UK will see such a strong performance again for some time. In reality, the danger is that this figure fuels a misguided belief that the economy is on the mend, when in fact there is plenty of evidence to suggest that momentum is being lost again.

There is a real risk that a return to contraction might be seen again in the fourth quarter.

The irony is that a slightly weaker figure in this quarter, by reducing the risk of a slump in Q4, might have suited the government more.

Balloons featuring images of George Osborne at the Conservative conference in Birmingham earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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