A flap of a butterfly's wings to freeze the UK economy

The economy has been sailing smoothly this summer. But winter is coming…

The coalition’s economic policies have benefited, like all of us, from the summer sun. But now the nights are drawing in, and the party conference season approaching. We all know that butterflies fluttering over the Amazon can cause snow in Chicago, and there are at least 4 butterflies whose flapping wings may deliver equally chilling results here in the UK in the next few weeks.

The first butterfly starts to flap a month from tomorrow, on September 22, as Germany goes to the polls. The approach of the German election has put the Eurozone crisis "on hold" for the past year. But the delay has made the problems worse, not better, with the Bundesbank warning again this week about the risks from "ongoing uncertainty about the economic policy situation" and the Eurozone debt crisis. The UK cannot therefore rule out the risk of a triple-dip recession in its largest trading partner, if Southern European economies continue to struggle. 

The US will set the second butterfly fluttering in October, when Congress debates the future of the sequester programme and the need to increase in the country’s debt ceiling. As in the Eurozone, US politicians have made a habit of postponing hard decisions in the hope that, Micawber-like, “something will turn up”. But government departments are now having to impose short-time working as a result of the sequester. For example, 650,000 Department of Defence workers are effectively on a 4-day week till September. And markets do not always stay calm once uncertainty rises and the rhetoric starts to fly.

Over in the east, October also sees a third butterfly released at China’s crucial economic policy meeting, the so-called “third plenum”. This is expected to endorse major reforms aimed at boosting domestic consumption from today’s miserably low level, and abandoning the current reliance on export-led growth. But this will not be easy, as China’s city-dwellers have average incomes of only £3000/year, whilst the half of the population still living in rural areas earn just £1000/year. This enormous shift in the world’s second largest economy must inevitably have consequences for us, most of which are currently unknowable.

The fourth butterfly is closer to home. New Bank of England governor Mark Carney’s much-heralded policy guidance has so far been ignored by the markets. Yields in the government bond market for the benchmark 10-year gilt have instead risen by 100 basis points, 1 per cent, since May. This lack of a honeymoon period is a clear omen of potential difficulties ahead for both borrowers and savers. Whilst an out-of-control housing market in London and the south east is making life very difficult for many buyers and renters.

Any of these butterflies could easily send a severe winter chill through an unprepared UK economy. They also highlight how wishful thinking about growth has come to dominate economic policy.

We know, for example, that consumption is 60 per cent of UK GDP, and that consumption falls away as people reach the age of 55. At this age, people already own most of what they need, whilst their earnings decline as they begin to enter retirement. Yet although the average boomer turns 55 this year, policymakers are still failing to connect the dots as regards the implications for GDP.

With 30 per cent of the UK’s population now in this New Old 55+ cohort, it is unrealistic to expect a repeat of the sustained growth seen when the boomers were in their prime wealth-creating years. Voters are not stupid. The party that talks about the new policies needed for today’s new normal, and not around them, will find itself best positioned for the 2015 election.

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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

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

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum