London Briefing: George Osborne under fire amid fears of triple-dip recession

Forecasters are united on one thing – Britain’s economy is in dire straits

Britain’s chancellor George Osborne: the pressure has been mounting on him in the run-up to tomorrow’s GDP announcement, not least from the International Monetary Fund, which has joined the chorus of those questioning his rigid adherence to austerity. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Reuters

Britain’s chancellor George Osborne: the pressure has been mounting on him in the run-up to tomorrow’s GDP announcement, not least from the International Monetary Fund, which has joined the chorus of those questioning his rigid adherence to austerity. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Reuters

Wed, Apr 24, 2013, 06:00

Has Britain slithered into its third recession since the start of the financial crisis? We’ll find out at last at 9.30am tomorrow when the Office for National Statistics releases its eagerly-awaited estimate of first quarter GDP. In the final three months of last year the economy contracted by 0.3 per cent and a second successive quarter of contraction will mark a return to recession.

Economists remain split over the outcome, with predictions ranging from -0.2 per cent to +0.3 per cent for the three months to end March. But the forecasters are united on one thing: whether or not we escape the dreaded – and unprecedented – triple-dip downturn, Britain’s economy is in dire straits.

The pressure on Chancellor George Osborne has been mounting in the run-up to tomorrow’s GDP announcement, not least from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has joined the chorus of those questioning his rigid adherence to austerity.

Ratings agency Fitch has also joined Moody’s in stripping Britain of its prized triple A credit rating, saying the fiscal space to absorb further adverse economic and financial shocks “is no longer consistent with a AAA rating”. The Fitch move follows Moody’s downgrade in February.


Archbishop of Canterbury
Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has weighed in, warning earlier this week at a Bible Society event in Westminster that the country is in a state of economic depression from which it could take a generation to recover.

“Economic crises are a major problem when they are severe,” said the former oil industry executive, who took over his role last month and is also a member of the influential parliamentary commission on banking standards.

“When they are accompanied by a financial crisis and breakdown in confidence then they become a generational problem . . . I would argue that what we are in at the moment is not a recession but essentially some kind of depression.”

In the meantime, recent data has been almost relentlessly gloomy – unemployment is rising, business lending is falling, as are retail sales; earnings are lagging inflation, putting household budgets under increasing pressure, and consumer confidence remains fragile.

Amid a wider global debate on the efficacy of austerity, and as it cut Britain’s growth forecasts once again, the IMF last week urged Osborne to rethink his strategy, reversing its previous support for his programme of cuts aimed at tackling Britain’s record peacetime budget deficit. IMF head Christine Lagarde was measured in her language, saying that if the economy slows, then “consideration” should be given to slowing the pace of cuts.

But the fund’s chief economist, Olivier Blanchard, was far more outspoken, warning Britain’s chancellor he would be “playing with fire” if he fails to come up with a Plan B.

Osborne was toughing it out yesterday, denying that he was getting “panicky” about the state of Britain’s economy and insisting that Blanchard was just “one voice” on the IMF. The fund’s full verdict will come when it releases its annual health-check on the British economy in London next month, he said, pointing out that the IMF forecasts show Britain growing more than Germany, France and the rest of the euro zone.

Despite the chancellor’s protestations, his austerity programme has had only a limited impact on the deficit. New figures released yesterday revealed that while borrowing did fall last year, the reduction was a mere £300 million on 2011/12, equivalent to just 0.02 per cent of GDP.

At £120.6 billion, the deficit remains worryingly high. And it’s way off his original target – in his first budget in June 2010, Osborne predicted a deficit of just £89 billion for the fiscal year just ended. He also pledged to eliminate the underlying budget deficit by 2014/15, but has seen that target slip by several years as the economy stagnates. Net government debt climbed to a record £1.1858 billion, or just over 75 per cent of GDP and is forecast to rise to over 85 per cent of GDP in 2016/17.

The deficit news could have been worse, of course, and the chancellor was at least spared the embarrassment of a year on year rise, even if it was by a whisker.

He’ll be hoping now that on Thursday he can round off what’s been a particularly rough week by avoiding a raft of triple-dip recession headlines. Even if he does, though, Osborne knows the debate on austerity will not go away, nor will the clamour to know just how he proposes to get Britain’s battered economy moving again.

Fiona Walsh writes for the Guardian in London