George Osborne arrives at Lancaster House for a UK/China Financial Forum in London on June 18, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Falling wages show why the Tories aren't benefiting from the return of growth

GDP may be rising, but wage growth is at its lowest level on record. There is no recovery for most voters. 

When wages briefly drew level with inflation earlier this year, some claimed that the "cost-of-living-crisis" (in Labour's phrase) was over. The Tories argued that wages were a "lagging indicator" and that higher output would translate into higher salaries. As George Osborne remarked after the publication of the GDP figures in October 2013, "If Britain is growing then the finances of Britain’s families will start to grow." 

But today's earnings stats show that the reverse, dismayingly, is true. Total pay fell in nominal terms by 0.2 per cent between April and June, compared to inflation of  1.9 per cent. The fall is partly accounted for by last April's deferral of bonuses to benefit from the abolition of the 50p tax rate, which artificially boosted wage growth. But even if bonuses are stripped out, regular pay rose by just 0.6 per cent (1.3 per cent below inflation), the lowest figure since comparable records began in 2001 (although it is worth noting, as Duncan Weldon does, that real wages are not the same thing as living standards). 

The economic upside is the jobs boom. Unemployment fell by 132,000 to 2.08 million (6.4 per cent), the lowest level since the final quarter of 2008, while employment rose by 167,000 to 30.6 million (73.0 per cent), within touching distance of the record figure of 73.1 per cent achieved in February 2005.

But as Labour has long warned, far too many are in trapped in low-wage, low-skill jobs that don't pay them enough to achieve an adequate standard of living. Today's figures don't include the self-employed (responsible for almost half of the rise in employment over the last year) whose earnings have fallen at an even faster rate. 

On a political level, the figures help explain why the Tories have yet to receive the polling dividend that many expected from the recovery. While GDP is rising, wages are not, leaving many feeling no better off. Worryingly for the Conservatives, private polling by Labour shows that as growth accelerates, voters have become more concerned with issues such as living standards (on which Labour leads) and less concerned with issues such as the deficit (on which the Tories lead). With just nine months to go until the election, Osborne is running out of time to translate economic gains into political ones. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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