Why Major's call for 5% interest rates is economic madness

A significant rise in rates by 2017 would leave more than a million households spending more than half of their income on debt repayment.

While it's John Major's comments on social mobility that have made headlines today (read my critique of them here), his remarks on interest rates are equally striking. After years of loose monetary policy, with the base rate held at a record low of 0.5% since March 2009, Major called for rates to return sooner rather than later to "normal levels, say three to five per cent" to create a society that treats "the saver as fairly as it treats the debtor".

It's advice as bad as one would expect from the man who presided over rates of 15% in the early 1990s. As research by the Resolution Foundation shows, even under an optimistic scenario of strong and sustained earnings growth, a rise in the base rate to 3.9% by 2017 would leave 1.08 million families in "debt peril", defined as spending more than half of their income on debt repayment. Under a negative scenario of weak and uneven earnings growth, the number at risk would rise to 1.25 million. A more modest rise in rates to 2.9% would leave between 880,000 (positive scenario) and 1.04 million (negative scenario) in debt peril.

No one believes in low rates as a point of principle (and Major is right to highlight how savers, most notably the elderly, have suffered) but after the longest sustained fall in living standards since 1870, the only sensible option remains to keep monetary policy loose. As Matthew Whittaker, senior economist at the Resolution Foundation, has noted: "Even if interest rates stay in line with expectations, we are likely to see a rise in the number of families struggling with heavy levels of repayment over the coming years. But if the squeeze on household incomes continues, Britain could be left in a fragile position, with even moderate additional increases in interest rates leading to a major surge in families with dangerous debt levels – especially among worse-off households."

The coalition's decision to rely so heavily on cuts to public spending and benefits, rather than progressive tax rises, to reduce the deficit means that low-income families are even less well-placed to cope with a rise in rates. The OBR forecasts that average household debt will rise to £58,000 in 2010 to £77,309 by 2015, or from 160% of total income to 175%.

While fixated with reducing government borrowing, Cameron and Osborne appear intensely relaxed about ever-greater levels of household indebtedness. If Major wants someone to blame for the punishingly low rates endured by savers, he should turn his ire on the austerians in Downing Street.

John Major called for interest rates to return to "normal levels, say three to five per cent". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.