The UK economy hasn't grown more than the US

The US has grown by 2.3 per cent in the last year, while the UK has remained flat.

The final set of US growth figures before the presidential election were released today, showing that the economy grew at an annual rate of 2 per cent in the third quarter or a quarterly rate of 0.5 per cent. The Tories, unsurprisingly, are keen to point out that that's a worse performance than the UK, which, as we learned yesterday, grew at a quarterly rate of 1 per cent in Q3.  But they would be wise not to invite too much comparison of the UK and US economies.

First, while the US has grown by 2.3 per cent over the last year, the UK economy has failed to grow at all. As the Office for National Statistics reported yesterday: "GDP in volume terms was estimated to have been flat in Q3 2012, when compared with Q3 2011".

Second, while the US economy is now 2.3 per cent above its pre-recession peak, the UK remains 3.1 per cent below. The US has grown for 13 consecutive quarters, but we've only just recovered the output lost in the double-dip recession (a fate that the US, partly thanks to a policy of stimulus, rather than austerity, avoided). As a result, while they've grown by 3.9 per cent over the last two years, we've grown by just 0.6 per cent.

Finally, since the UK Q3 figure was artificially inflated by the bounce-back from the extra bank holiday in June (responsible for around half of the 1 per cent growth) and the inclusion of the Olympic ticket sales (responsible for 0.2 per cent), it's foolish of the Treasury to cite it as proof that we're "on the right track". Indeed, as I wrote yesterday, a significant number of forecasters believe it's possible or even probable that the economy will shrink in quarter four. Rather than complacently boasting about a one-off surge in growth, the Tories should be acting to prevent a triple-dip recession.

The US economy is now 2.3 per cent above its pre-recession peak, while the UK remains 3.1 per cent below. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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George Osborne's surplus target is under threat without greater austerity

The IFS exposes the Chancellor's lack of breathing space.

At the end of the last year, I noted how George Osborne's stock, which rose dramatically after the general election, had begun to plummet. His ratings among Tory members and the electorate fell after the tax credits imbroglio and he was booed at the Star Wars premiere (a moment which recalled his past humbling at the Paralympics opening ceremony). 

Matters have improved little since. The Chancellor was isolated by No.10 and cabinet colleagues after describing the Google tax deal, under which the company paid £130m, as a "major success". Today, he is returning from the Super Bowl to a grim prognosis from the IFS. In its Green Budget, the economic oracle warns that Osborne's defining ambition of a budget surplus by 2019-20 may be unachievable without further spending cuts and tax rises. 

Though the OBR's most recent forecast gave him a £10.1bn cushion, reduced earnings growth and lower equity prices could eat up most of that. In addition, the government has pledged to make £8bn of currently unfunded tax cuts by raising the personal allowance and the 40p rate threshold. The problem for Osborne, as his tax credits defeat demonstrated, is that there are few easy cuts left to make. 

Having committed to achieving a surplus by the fixed date of 2019-20, the Chancellor's new fiscal mandate gives him less flexibility than in the past. Indeed, it has been enshrined in law. Osborne's hope is that the UK will achieve its first surplus since 2000-01 just at the moment that he is set to succeed (or has succeeded) David Cameron as prime minister: his political fortunes are aligned with those of the economy. 

There is just one get-out clause. Should GDP growth fall below 1 per cent, the target is suspended. An anaemic economy would hardly be welcome for the Chancellor but it would at least provide him with an alibi for continued borrowing. Osborne may be forced to once more recite his own version of Keynes's maxim: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.