When Labour councillors toast their election success this Thursday evening, they should raise a special glass to Alex Belardinelli. Belardinelli is Ed Balls’s spinner, and last Wednesday found himself engaged in some good old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat with the Treasury over the publication of the first-quarter growth figures.
Prior to their release, the BBC framed the announcement like this:
Key UK economic growth figures are published later that will show whether the economy has rebounded from the contraction at the end of last year or fallen into a double-dip recession.
Bounce back or double dip. Heads or tails. At least that’s what George Osborne was thinking when the growth figure of 0.5 per cent was revealed. “It’s good news the British economy is growing,” he declared proudly. “It’s particularly good news manufacturing is growing . . . jobs have been created since the New Year and government borrowing is down.”
All back on track – it was the wrong kind of snow.
Then he picked up Thursday’s papers. “No spring bounce”, said the Financial Times. “Despite meagre growth we must hold our nerve”, urged the Telegraph. No sooner had George stopped spitting into his cornflakes than he heard the BBC’s economics editor, Stephanie Flanders, delivering the coup de grâce,
For once, the first estimate for growth in the first quarter is in line with expectations – but it would be hard to argue that it’s good news.
No contest. “The economy is growing,” said Osborne. “The economy is flatlining,” said Ed Balls. It was the Balls soundbite that prevailed.
Politics is a battle won by a combination of good strategy and good tactics – the grand plan executed with precision and purpose. On Wednesday, Alex Belardinelli jumped into the trenches and gave the coalition a taste of cold Labour steel.
But grit and graft are not enough. Courage will only get you so far. And if you stay out in the field long enough, sooner or later you will find a bullet out there with your name on it.
Labour is just about holding the line on the economy, but it is thinning.
The party’s strategic economic narrative is clear. Too clear.
According to Balls and Ed Milliband, the coalition’s own strategy is “a prescription for disaster”. They are practising “Del Boy economics”. Their policies are “hurting but not working”; people see “unemployment rising, they see inflation rising and they see growth stall”. Yet David Cameron, Osborne and Nick Clegg have “no plan B”.
That may be the case. An economic apocalypse may well be bearing down on us. But what if it isn’t?
Osborne may have been bloodied, but he managed to haul his battered frame over one obstacle on Wednesday. The same Telegraph leader that urged ministers to keep calm and carry on also helpfully pointed out: “The GDP figures for the first quarter of this year deserve one cheer at least for snuffing out the threat of a double-dip recession.”
That is not a minor issue. Miliband has been implicit, and Balls explicit, in identifying a new recession as the possible, or even probable, price of the government’s deficit reduction strategy. We have a maximum of 16 sets of growth figures between now and the next election, and at least two of them have to align negatively for that warning to be vindicated.
Live to that possibility, Labour’s leader and shadow chancellor are busy constructing a second redoubt around the notion of “stagnant growth”. On the basis of the consensus view of the economists, it’s a position that may prove sturdy in the short to medium term. But can it hold indefinitely?
The National Institute of Economic and Social Research predicts the UK is facing such a sluggish recovery that we will not surpass our 2008 growth peak until 2013. That may be problematic economically, but not necessarily politically. By that point we are likely to find “stagnant growth” has been repackaged as “steady growth”; and with plenty of time to embed that message before voters are asked to cast their own verdict.
Labour’s problem is that it has good tactics, but these are being deployed in support of a vulnerable strategy.
In contrast, the coalition is taking casualties, but has divisions in reserve. It is an open secret within government that the impact of the cuts has been deliberately overstated for the purposes of managing expectations. Osborne also has an economic super-weapon, in the form of flotation of the nationalised bank assets, ready to be deployed. And crucially, by taking the harsh decisions early, he has the political cycle on his side.
Belardinelli fought with valour and distinction last week, but his ammunition is not limitless. The enemy is regrouping for another charge.
He needs reinforcements. And he needs them quickly. Because, out there in the darkness, one of George Osborne’s snipers is adjusting his sights.