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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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.