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.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.