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

Photo: Getty
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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.