The condensed Moody's downgrade

What does the rating agency say about Britain?

The Moody's credit rating agency downgraded Britain yesterday. It's important to note that ratings agencies "quite simply don't understand what they themselves are saying", that they aren't very good at rating credit, and that no-one actually cares if a country's rating does get cut — but with all of that in mind, what does Moody's actually say about Britain?

The agency's own summary gives three interrelated reasons for the downgrade:

  1. The continuing weakness in the UK's medium-term growth outlook, with a period of sluggish growth which Moody's now expects will extend into the second half of the decade;
  2. The challenges that subdued medium-term growth prospects pose to the government's fiscal consolidation programme, which will now extend well into the next parliament;
  3. And, as a consequence of the UK's high and rising debt burden, a deterioration in the shock-absorption capacity of the government's balance sheet, which is unlikely to reverse before 2016.

That is, we aren't growing, that growth is harming our ability to deal with the deficit, and that deficit means we're less likely to be able to deal with any other nastiness the global economic climate throws at us.

Expanding on the first of those, Moody's says:

Despite considerable structural economic strengths, the UK's economic growth will remain sluggish over the next few years due to the anticipated slow growth of the global economy and the drag on the UK economy from the ongoing domestic public- and private-sector deleveraging process.

Moody's also slams the Chancellor for his "smash and grab raid" on the Bank of England's QE funds, saying that:

Moody's now expects that the UK's gross general government debt level will peak at just over 96% of GDP in 2016. The rating agency says that it would have expected it to peak at a higher level if the government had not reduced its debt stock by transferring funds from the Asset Purchase Facility which will equal to roughly 3.7% of GDP in total as announced in November 2012.

The agency is clear, though, that the failure to cut the deficit comes from a lack of growth, not a lack of commitment. In other words, Osborne's plan was always likely to be self-defeating:

More specifically, projected tax revenue increases have been difficult to achieve in the UK due to the challenging economic environment. As a result, the weaker economic outturn has substantially slowed the anticipated pace of deficit and debt-to-GDP reduction, and is likely to continue to do so over the medium term.

And so, Moody's says, with too much debt we won't be able to deal with another recession:

Moody's believes that the mounting debt levels in a low-growth environment have impaired the sovereign's ability to contain and quickly reverse the impact of adverse economic or financial shocks. For example, given the pace of deficit and debt reduction that Moody's has observed since 2010, there is a risk that the UK government may not be able to reverse the debt trajectory before the next economic shock or cyclical downturn in the economy.

These words will be dissected over the next few days, as every political actor tries to read into them what they want. Some will focus on the fact that Moody's analysis starts with poor growth as the basic factor for Osborne's failure. Others will note that Moody's is still a firm advocate of high-speed deficit reduction.

Still others, myself included, will argue that, apart from the fact that the Chancellor has been hoist by his own petard, all the news really does is prove yet again that ratings agencies aren't very good at their jobs. Moody's recognises that Britain's economic travails stem from depressed growth, but its analysis seems incapable of progressing on from there. Taken as a whole, the agency is saying, with a straight face, that "Britain's attempts to cut its debt have harmed its attempts to cut its debt, and this could harm its attempts to cut its debt", and it sees nothing problematic with that.

Really, nothing in Moody's analysis matters. The only important part of it is that one missing A, and the effect that has on Osborne's credibility.

Moody's. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.