Cyprus looks for plan B

There is no plan B.

At 10am Cyprus time, the Cypriot government started to hammer out another vote on whether they have a plan B to present to the European Central Bank. If they do not have an alternative to the mooted deposit tax by Monday, the bank will cut off emergency liquidity assistance to Cyprus' two biggest banks, plunging them into bankruptcy, and putting Cyprus on a path which will inevitably lead them to an exit from the euro, and possibly the EU altogether.

Cyprus does not, currently, have a plan B.

The plans to be put in front of Parliament cover the winding up of Laiki, one of the two troubled banks (the other is the Bank of Cyprus), splitting it into "good" and "bad" banks, hopefully ensuring that the depositors in the good bank – those with insured deposits under €100,000 – do not immediately withdraw their money once the banks reopen.

That proposal has received a "cautious" response from eurozone finance ministers, according to the Financial Times, but doesn't go anywhere near solving the problem.

In giving the Monday deadline, the European diplomats and ministers who ultimately hold sway over Cyprus also clarified their position about what an acceptable solution would be, and in doing so made things much, much worse.

We already knew that their initial proposal to the Cypriot government offered a loan of €10bn and required the government come up with a further €7bn itself in order to fund the €17bn needed for recapitalisation of the banks. But, reports Felix Salmon:

The stated reason why Europe won’t lend more than €10 billion is that Europe refuses to allow Cyprus’s debt level rise above a certain level.

That means that, at a stroke, most of Cyprus' alternative solutions are bust. It can't take a loan from the Russian government, it can't borrow from its own pension funds, it can't confiscate deposits and replace them with post-dated bonds.

The EU is basically confirming to Cyprus that its options are:

  1. Pass the deposit tax.
  2. Find some other tax which will get €7bn – a little under a third of GDP – in a weekend.
  3. Leave the eurozone.

In a way, though, the background situation has got better for Cyprus in the last week. On Monday, the country was deathly afraid of the deposit tax because it could have signalled the death of Cyprus as a destination for offshore banking. That appears to have been the reason why it took the disastrous choice to "spread the pain" by hitting insured depositors with a tax on top of uninsured.

Now, it doesn't have to worry about that, because its role as an offshore banking destination is dead already. It is, bluntly, inconceivable that the "solution" to the crisis, whatever it is, won't result in deposit flight from overseas depositors. The only hope left is to ensure that it doesn't also result in Cypriots moving their money offshore.

With that in mind, it may turn out to be the case that the best solution for Cyprus is the one it was offered at the start: soak the (largely foreign) rich with a 15 per cent deposit tax, look after the poor's deposits, and move on to trying to find an alternative basis for its economy.

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.

Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.