George Osborne: An increasingly lonely poster boy for austerity

As the IMF distances itself from unbalanced fiscal consolidation, Osborne is running out of allies — and time

It has always been the case that the Coalition would be judged on the effectiveness of their economic policies. The salvation of the economy from the phantom menace of "becoming Greece" has, after all, been the explicitly stated reason for this Faustian pact.

It is, therefore, particularly bad news that on Wednesday a paper from the top economists at the IMF was published suggesting what many already knew: that a path of unbalanced, overly zealous austerity has a much more disastrous effect on economic growth than originally envisaged.

Olivier Blanchard, the IMF's Economic Counsellor, and its chief research economist Daniel Leigh, have confirmed, complete with scatter diagrams, what was trailed in October's World Economic Outlook report. Specifically, that a cut of government spending results in, not, as previously thought, an equivalent loss in economic output, but triple that.

Oops! We got our multipliers radically wrong, folks. Sorry, Greece. Sorry, Europe. Sorry, World. Everyone makes mistakes, you may say.

But this was not an error of scientific judgment. It was an error of ideology, policy and presentation. The Coalition was caught in a pincer movement. The rhetoric of doom and gloom was essential to defeating any opposition to a programme of ideologically driven cuts – and making everyone who argued against it look like a debt denier. Its unfortunate, but completely foreseeable side-effect however, was to scare the private sector stiff. The slack that was being created at a phenomenal rate, was not being picked up by private enterprise.

In other words, if you want someone else to take over the wheel, it really doesn't help to be running around screaming "we're all going to die". The net result has been to terrify the private sector into reserve hoarding and balance sheet retrenchment. The blame for that lays entirely with the Coalition and any other government that chose to speak the grand guignol language of fear.

"Forecasters significantly underestimated the increase in unemployment and the decline in domestic demand associated with fiscal consolidation", Blanchard and Leigh conclude, causing one commentator to describe the paper as "a mea culpa submerged in a deep pool of calculus and regression analysis".

Increasingly, then, our Chancellor refusing to admit error and put into effect a "plan B", cuts an isolated figure. This will only encourage the dissenting voices in Opposition – whose catchphrase "too far, too fast" could have been the title of this latest IMF paper. It will also encourage dissenting voices within his own party, who have shown open resentment for the coalition deal.

And increasingly, the hollow excuses of too much rain/too much sun/not enough sun/three flakes of snow more than expected/the Royal Jubilee/the Olympics/the dog ate my homework, will start to sound like precisely that: hollow excuses.

If, as some predict, we slide into a triple dip recession, the wider public will begin to perceive that, far from "healing", the economy is choking with an occasional gasp for breath. And George Osborne will look increasingly incompetent and devoid of allies, under a PM who showed through the Mitchell affair that loyalty in not a favourite currency.

Osborne's peculiar brand of neoliberal auto-erotic asphyxiation has limits. The safe word for stopping it is "reshuffle".

Osborne in 2009. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide