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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The trouble with a second Brexit referendum

A new vote risks coming too soon for Remainers. But there is an alternative. 

In any given week, a senior political figure will call for a second Brexit referendum (the most recent being David Miliband). It's not hard to see why. EU withdrawal risks proving an act of political and economic self-harm and Leave's victory was narrow (52-48). Had Remain won by a similar margin, the Brexiteers would have immediately demanded a re-run. 

But the obstacles to another vote are significant. Though only 52 per cent backed Brexit, a far larger number (c. 65 per cent) believe the result should be respected. No major party currently supports a second referendum and time is short.

Even if Remainers succeed in securing a vote, it risks being lost. As Theresa May learned to her cost, electorates have a habit of punishing those who force them to polls. "It would simply be too risky," a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Were a second referendum lost, any hope of blocking Brexit, or even softening it, would be ended. 

The vote, as some Remainers note, would also come at the wrong moment. By 2018/19, the UK will, at best, have finalised its divorce terms. A new trade agreement with the EU will take far longer to conclude. Thus, the Brexiteers would be free to paint a false picture of the UK's future relationship. "It would be another half-baked, ill-informed campaign," a Labour MP told me. 

For this reason, as I write in my column this week, an increasing number of Remainers are attracted to an alternative strategy. After a lengthy transition, they argue, voters should be offered a choice between a new EU trade deal and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be a distant memory. The proviso, they add, is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms (rather than ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). 

Rather than publicly proposing this plan, MPs are wisely keeping their counsel. As they know, those who hope to overturn the Brexit result must first be seen to respect it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.