Osborne humiliated as UK loses AAA credit rating

The Chancellor chose to make Britain's AAA credit rating the ultimate test of economic stability. Tonight, he has been hoist with his own petard.

Back in February 2010, a few months before he entered the Treasury, George Osborne declared: "Our first benchmark is to cut the deficit more quickly to safeguard Britain’s credit rating. I know that we are taking a political gamble to set this up as a measure of success." A gamble it was and how it has backfired on the Chancellor. Tonight, Moody's became the first rating agency to strip the UK of its AAA credit rating (downgrading it to AA1), citing the "continuing weakness" in the UK's growth outlook and its "high and rising debt burden".

For Osborne, who chose to make our credit rating the ultimate metric of economic stability, it is a humiliating moment. Not my words, but his. During one of his rhetorical assaults against Labour in August 2009, he warned: "Britain faces the humiliating possibility of losing its international credit rating". Rarely before or after becoming Chancellor, did Osborne miss an opportunity to remind us just how important he thought the retention of our AAA rating was.  When the UK was first put on negative outlook by Standard & Poor's, he said:

It's now clear that Britain's economic reputation is on the line at the next general election, another reason for bringing the date forward and having that election now ... For the first time since these ratings began in 1978, the outlook for British debt has been downgraded from stable to negative.

After it was later moved off negative outlook, he declared:

Last April, the absence of a credible deficit plan meant our country's credit rating was on negative outlook and our market interest rates were higher than Italy's.

By Osborne's own logic, then, his deficit plan is no longer credible.

Tonight, the Chancellor has, unsurprisingly, described the decision as "a stark reminder of the debt problems facing our country – and the clearest possible warning to anyone who thinks we can run away from dealing with those problems". His cause is aided by the fact that the hawkish rating agencies want more austerity, not less. In its explanation of the decision, Moody's cited "reduced political commitment to fiscal consolidation". As he comes under attack from Labour, Osborne will retort, "but you want to borrow even more!" Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, who frequently shy away from making the explicit case for Keynesian stimulus, will need a clear and strong response.

The economic consequences of the downgrade are unlikely to be significant. France and the US, for instance, have seen no rise in their borrowing costs since losing their AAA ratings (in fact, yields on US and French bonds have fallen). All the evidence we have suggests that the market is prepared to lend to countries that can borrow in their own currencies (such as the UK) and that enjoy the benefits of an independent monetary policy, regardless of their credit ratings or their debt levels. But the politics of the downgrade are toxic for Osborne.

Still, you might ask, why should we listen to Moody's, the agency that gave AIG an AAA rating just a month before it collapsed? The answer is simple: we shouldn't. But this doesn't alter the fact that Osborne did. For political purposes, he used Britain's credit rating as a stick to beat Labour with. He can hardly complain if others now use this move against him. Tonight, the Chancellor has been hoist with his own petard.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne leaves Number 11 Downing Street on December 12, 2012 in London. 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.