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20 June 2011

Boris undermines Osborne’s austerity argument

Mayor of London points out that "Greek austerity measures are making the economy worse".

By George Eaton

Even by his own high standards, Boris Johnson is on combative form this morning. The Mayor of London uses his regular Telegraph column to urge EU leaders to let Greece default on its debts and force it to leave the euro, while in a piece for the Sun, he launches an assault on Ken Clarke’s sentencing plans. “Soft is the perfect way to enjoy French cheese, but not how we should approach punishing criminals,” he writes.

But it’s a line in his Telegraph column that really stands out: “The trouble is that the Greek austerity measures are making the economy worse.” It’s a point that Ed Balls and others have made frequently in recent months but it’s not one that you’ll hear from George Osborne, for the simple reason that it contradicts his claim that spending cuts are a precondition for growth.

The austerity measures adopted by Ireland, Portugal (which went one better than Osborne and raised VAT twice) and Greece have exacerbated, rather than diminished, their economic problems. As Balls argued in his LSE lecture last week: “[W]hat they [Portugal], Ireland and Greece have all discovered – just like Argentina, Brazil and Turkey before them – is that it doesn’t matter how much they cut spending or how much they raise taxes; if they can’t create jobs and growth, their debt and deficit problems get even worse and market confidence falls further still.”

Similarly, in Britain, rather than increasing growth, Osborne’s austerity agenda has destroyed it. The economy, which grew by 1.8 per cent over Q2 and Q3 2010, has not grown for the last six months. Britain, which was at the top end of the European growth league table, is now fourth from bottom, with only Greece, Portugal and Denmark below it.

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Yet according to Osborne’s doctrine of “expasionary fiscal contraction”, the reverse should have happened. As the state contracts, the economy should expand. But with consumer spending still depressed and the banks not lending enough, where will growth come from if not from active government? Britain, like Greece, cannot cut its way out of stagnation.