What are Osborne's choices now?

The Chancellor can do what’s best for the economy or retain the support of the Tory party faithful. He cannot do both.

The original game plan for the Conservative-led coalition was fairly simple: to eliminate the structural deficit it had inherited within the five-year parliament and ride the global recovery back to economic growth. With that achieved, the Tories’ reputation for economic competence would be restored, promises to end austerity could be made, and a thumping Conservative majority in 2015 would be the just reward. Unfortunately that proved to be one of many over-optimistic projections.

With the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats now trailing Labour in opinion polls, George Osborne appears to face a difficult balancing act between nurturing a pallid economic recovery, maintaining the UK’s AAA credit rating, broadening support for the coalition’s policies, and cementing the loyalty of the Tory party faithful. It seems unlikely that all of these objectives can be achieved simultaneously.

Broadly speaking, the chancellor has three options. First, he could slow the pace of fiscal consolidation over and above simply allowing the "automatic stabilisers" to work, reducing the fiscal drag on the economy. Yet, 90 per cent of those who support the government believe the pace of tightening is about right, or could even be accelerated. With the coalition's austerity programme not even halfway complete, reversing course now would be an admission of failure, a sure-fire way of losing yet more support in the run-up to the 2015 general election.

Alternatively, the Chancellor could maintain the current timetable of austerity but look to spread the pain more broadly across society. Economically, this could make sense. ASR’s UK Household Finances Survey clearly illustrates that those on lower incomes are most insecure in their jobs and are experiencing the most significant financial pressures; shifting more of the burden onto those with broader shoulders could help to free up disposable income and support consumer spending. But again, this issue polarises opinion.

Finally, the Chancellor could look to stay the course and stick with the current strategy. This is not as simple as it sounds. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out, another £27bn of cuts will need to be specified if the Chancellor is to meet his fiscal envelope. Assuming the coalition endorses the opinions advanced in the Household Finances Survey and maintains the sacrosanctity of the NHS and education, this would leave other departments facing unprecedented cuts of 16 per cent in real-terms during the three years to 2017-18 – areas such as the police, defence and transport. Such cuts look unviable and would prove unpopular. In other words, maintaining the status quo is a false option; the Chancellor will have to either inflict further pain on some segments of society or abandon his remaining fiscal targets before the next election in 2015.

Is there a third way? A boost to public investment notionally financed through the private sector seems like a possible method of fiscal support. This would achieve the multiple aims of supporting growth in the near-term, enhancing the supply-side of the economy and keeping debt off the public sector’s balance sheet. Already, the government plans to guarantee £40bn of loans to finance infrastructure projects, with projects worth £10bn already under consideration. Similar schemes, such as privately-contracted road pricing schemes, might also be considered.

Otherwise, this leaves the British government looking like Mr Micawber, simply hoping that "something will turn up". There are two potential saviours. The government could lean on the Bank of England further, adapting its mandate to provide additional monetary support above and beyond that consistent with its inflation target. At the very least, further rounds of Quantitative Easing look likely. Alternatively, the rest of the world could come to the UK's rescue. A global recovery – particularly one that spreads to the eurozone – would provide a source of demand where currently there is none. Ironically, the UK public’s growing hostility towards the EU comes at a time when it needs Europe more than ever.

Dominic White is chief European economist and Richard Mylles is a political risk analyst at Absolute Strategy Research

Chancellor George Osborne leaves Number 11 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

Dominic White is chief European economist and Richard Mylles is a political risk analyst at Absolute Strategy Research

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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