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.

David Young
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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