Will the UK's shrinking economy spoil Cameron's EU speech?

Any political high from Cameron's EU speech could be shortlived if figures released on Friday show that the UK economy shrunk in the final quarter of 2012.

In the absence of any unforseen hitches, David Cameron will finally deliver his long-delayed speech on Britain's relationship with the EU this week. It won't be today, the day of Barack Obama's second inauguration, or tomorrow, when thousands of French and German politicians and diplomats will gather in Berlin to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Elysée Treaty (also known as the Treaty of Friendship) between the two countries, or at the end of the week, when Cameron travels to Davos for the 2013 World Economic Forum, leaving Wednesday as the most likely date for the address.

When Cameron gives his speech, promising that a Conservative government would seek to repatriate powers from Brussels before holding a referendum on the outcome (offering voters a choice between what Cameron calls a "new settlement" and withdrawal), he will hope, among other things, for a bounce in the polls. The last time that the Tories enjoyed a sustained lead over Labour was in December 2011 after Cameron's EU "veto". With reports of Conservative MPs reacquiring their taste for regicide, the PM is keen to show that there are things he can do to improve his party's dismal chances of victory at the next election.

But his speech risks being overshadowed by the other big event of the week: the release of the first estimate of UK quarter four GDP on Friday. After growth of 0.9 per cent in the third quarter, artifically inflated by the inclusion of the Olympic ticket sales and the bounce-back from the extra bank holiday in June, forecasters almost universally expect a negative figure. The government's own forecaster, the Office for Budget Responsibility, predicts that the economy shrunk by 0.1 per cent, while the National Institute of Economic and Social Research expects a contraction of 0.3 per cent.

A contraction in quarter four wouldn't represent an unprecedented "triple-dip recession" (that would require two successive quarters of negative growth), it would make it significantly harder for Cameron to claim that the economy is "healing" and embolden Labour to go on the attack. If the economy is shown to have shrunk in Q4, four of the last five quarters will have been negative.

We know from the pre-released extracts of Cameron's speech that the Prime Minister intends to bemoan the EU's "crisis of competitiveness". But if the UK economy, which has performed worse than almost any other in Europe, is shown to have shrunk again, his lecture could soon look ill-advised.

David Cameron is expected to deliver his speech on Britain's relationship with the EU on Wednesday. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.