Why the Tories shouldn't get excited about "good" economic news

The economy might appear to be improving but forecasters predict a "triple-dip recession" and rising unemployment.

This week's economic news has prompted hope among the Tories that the tide is finally turning in their favour. Employment is at a record high, inflation is down to 2.2 per cent, its lowest level since November 2009, and borrowing has fallen to its lowest level for four years. The positive trend will continue next week when the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announces that the economy finally returned to growth in the third quarter (the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, for instance, has predicted growth of 0.8 per cent). Team Osborne hope that all of this will allow them to tell a plausible story of recovery.

However, it's worth pointing out several inconvenient truths. First, the next set of growth figures will be artificially inflated by the bounce back from the extra bank holiday in the previous quarter (which reduced growth by an estimated 0.5 per cent) and by the inclusion of the Olympic ticket sales (which are expected to add around 0.2 per cent to GDP). So, if the ONS announces that the economy grew by 0.8 per cent in the third quarter, the underlying rate of growth will be just 0.1 per cent.

Worse, many expect the economy to contract in the fourth quarter (what our economics editor David Blanchflower has termed a "triple-dip recession"). Bank of England MPC member Martin Weale has warned: "The Jubilee depressed output in the second quarter so you get an automatic bounce back. But if we talk about underlying growth then I think the economy is flat. I certainly would not say there is no risk of [a triple-dip recession] happening." Martin Beck, UK economist at Capital Economics, told the Today programme last week: "we expect the economy to start contracting again in the fourth quarter."

On employment, the picture is similarly mixed. As I noted when the most recent figures were published on Wednesday, 59 per cent of the 212,000 jobs created in the last quarter are part-time and nearly half (101,000) are in London, suggesting that the labour market benefited from a temporary Olympics effect. Adequately paid, full-time employment is still remarkably hard to come by. Of the new jobs created over the last three months, one in three offer fewer than 15 hours week a work, while 54 per cent offer fewer than 30 hours. A near-record 1.4 million people are working part-time because they can't find full-time jobs. It's also worth noting that most forecasters expect unemployment to rise significantly next year as further spending cuts, a lack of growth and rising productivity restrict job creation. The CBI, for instance, predicts that unemployment will increase by nearly 200,000 to 2.7m.

Finally, the deficit. While September's figures were better-than-expected, borrowing so far this year remains £2.7bn (4.2 per cent) higher than in the same period last year and George Osborne is still expected to miss his annual target by £5-10bn. The Chancellor aims to borrow no more than £121bn this year, but in the first six months of 2012 he's borrowed £65.1bn. As a result, when he delivers his autumn statement on 5 December, Osborne will likely be forced to postpone his goal of eliminating the structural deficit (originally scheduled for 2015) for a third year - to 2018. Having once hoped to offer significant cuts in taxation at the next election, the Tories will only be able to promise yet more austerity.

Chancellor George Osborne speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.