Will Cameron's five nightmares come true?

Defeat in Eastleigh, a higher deficit, a triple-dip recession, poor local election results and the loss of Britain's AAA rating could prompt a new revolt by Tory MPs.

At the start of this month, the Evening Standard reported that Tory rebels had set David Cameron five challenges: victory in the Eastleigh by-election, a successful Budget, a return to economic growth, a strong performance in the county council elections and the retention of the UK's AAA credit rating. A few weeks on, what are the PM's chances of success looking like?

1. Eastleigh by-election: preparing for defeat

The Tories already appear resigned to defeat in Eastleigh, where the Lib Dems' local advantage - they hold all 36 council seats in the constituency - has given them the edge. Victory for "the yellow bastards" means it will be even harder for Cameron to argue that a Conservative majority is achievable in 2015. The party has included 20 Lib Dem MPs on its target list of 40 in the hope that they will prove easier to dislodge than their Labour counterparts, but Eastleigh suggests that Clegg's party will benefit from a significant incumbency advantage. The Lib Dems' plan to treat the general election as "57 by-elections" looks increasingly smart. 

2. The Budget: Osborne faces failure on the deficit

The pressure on George Osborne to deliver a "game changing" Budget has never been greater and will reach a new peak if the Tories lose in Eastleigh next Thursday. After growth of just 0.4 per cent since the Spending Review in October 2010, Conservative MPs are demanding shock-and-awe tax cuts. Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, has called for the abolition of Air Passenger Duty; others demand the suspension of capital gains tax and a reduction in corporation tax to an Irish-style level of 11 per cent.

But the problem for the Chancellor is that as Tory calls for action have grown, his room for manoeuvre has shrunk. After no growth in 2012, there's precious little spare money in the Treasury. When Osborne steps up to the despatch box on 20 March, he'll almost certainly be forced to announce that the deficit is expected to be higher this year than last.

Until now, even as he's repeatedly missed his borrowing targets, the Chancellor has at least been able to boast that the deficit has continued to fall each year. 'It's taking longer than we thought but we're still heading in the right direction' has been his mantra. But that's about to change. Even with the addition of the £2.3bn proceeds from the 4G spectrum auction, the OBR will likely forecast a deficit for 2013 in excess of the £121bn recorded in 2012. With just two months of the financial year remaining, borrowing is £5.3bn (5.8 per cent) higher than in the same period last year. Osborne, one Tory MP tells me, will have "the worst of both worlds": no growth and a rising deficit.

3. Triple-dip recession: still on the table

After the economy shrunk by 0.3 per cent in the final quarter of 2012, the UK is in danger of suffering its first-ever triple dip recession. And while most economists expect us to (just) avoid this fate (NIESR is forecasting growth of 0.2 per cent in the first quarter), last week's worse-than-expected retail figures, the weakest for three years, led to warnings that a triple-dip was still "on the table". Rob Wood, an economist at Berenberg Bank, said: "The underlying picture is that the economy is bouncing along the bottom, so weather disruptions can easily tip it into negative territory." 

The Office for National Statistics will publish its first estimate of Q1 GDP on 26 April, six days before the county council elections. 

4. County council elections: will the Tory vote hold up?

On paper, the county council elections should give Cameron the least cause for concern. As Tom Watson, Labour's campaign co-ordinator, told me yesterday: "It's shire elections in their heartlands. It's May 2014 that will be their big test." But with local Conservative associations reporting mass resignations over equal marriage and Ukip still polling strongly, the Tory vote could still take a battering. 

5AAA rating: increasingly at risk

The rising deficit means at least one of the big three credit rating agencies - Moody's, Fitch and Standard & Poor's - is likely to strip the UK of its AAA rating this year. All three have already put Britain on "negative outlook" after anaemic growth forced Osborne to borrow £212bn more than planned. 

The loss of our AAA rating would, as I've written before, be of little economic significance. The US and France have seen no significant rise in their borrowing costs since losing their AAA ratings and there's little reason to believe Britain would be any different. 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 US, the UK and Japan, and that enjoy the benefits of an independent monetary policy, regardless of their credit ratings or their debt levels.

But for Osborne, the politics of losing AAA would be toxic. Both before and after entering the Treasury, he chose to make our credit rating the ultimate metric of economic stability. When Britain was first put on negative outlook by S&P in May 2009, Osborne declared:

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.

And when the UK was taken off negative watch by S&P in October 2010, he boasted of "a big vote of confidence in the UK, and a vote of confidence in the coalition government's economic policies". By his own logic, then, the loss of AAA would amount to a vote of no confidence in his economic policy. 

For political purposes, Osborne used Britain's credit rating as a stick to beat Labour with. He can hardly complain if others now use this move against him. The hunter has become the hunted.

David Cameron holds a Q&A session with workers as he campaigns for the forthcoming by-election in Eastleigh. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.