My response to the Chancellor’s statement today

The shocking and inexcusable events of recent days in our cities are today rightly the Government’s first and immediate priority. However, looking ahead, the global economic events of recent days are an equal and perhaps even graver threat to our stability and cohesion, putting small businesses, jobs and mortgages at risk throughout our country. It is therefore right that the Chancellor is today updating the House and the country on the parlous state of the global economy and, I am afraid to say, the parlous state of the British economy.

In the same spirit of bipartisan co-operation that we have just seen from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, let me set out where Opposition Members agree with the Chancellor of the Exchequer as well as where we have grave concerns. First, the Chancellor is right: we made the right decision not to join the single currency in 2003. We agree with him that the crisis in the eurozone requires more decisive and radical action than we have seen so far. I welcome the fact that he is now, at last, involving himself in those discussions, and preparing contingency plans if British banks come under threat.

Tough fiscal decisions in Europe are vital, but is it not clear that the approach of European leaders so far—demanding ever more austerity from smaller countries—is not working because it does nothing to get those economies growing? Without that, countries find it harder and harder to convince the markets that they can repay their debts. Should not the Chancellor finally take a lead in brokering a plan in Europe for growth, alongside European-wide guarantees to reduce debt service costs, and stop the contagion?

I also agree with the Chancellor that months of political wrangling and uncertainty in the US about the pace of deficit reduction have depressed confidence and US growth. However, does the Chancellor agree with those wise heads who favour a balanced and sensible approach to deficit reduction, and fear that rapid US retrenchment could drive the world back into recession? Or does he agree with his friends—we know he has many in the Republican party and in the Tea party movement—who have urged deeper and faster cuts, and hailed the recent budget deal as delivering 98% of their demands? Is the Chancellor on the side of the Federal Reserve, former Treasury Secretaries and Nobel prize winners, or on that of, in the words of the Business Secretary, “right wing nutters”?

It is also right that G7 finance Ministers are finally discussing a co-ordinated response to a global crisis. However, listening to the Chancellor’s analysis, one would think that Britain was a bystander, watching public debt crises unfold in the eurozone and America that are best solved by individual countries taking their own actions to get debt down—on his analysis, the faster, the better. But the growth crisis is now global.

Does the Chancellor agree that the coming together of powerful negative forces in every continent, and including in Britain—continued deleveraging by banks and the private sector, drastic tightening of consumer spending and fiscal retrenchment from Governments—now means that some commentators warn that the crisis could become as grave as that of the early 1930s, when Governments around the world ignored their collective responsibility to promote growth, ploughed on with austerity and retrenchment and ushered in a decade of depression, unemployment, protectionism and political instability? Here in Britain, families and businesses, deeply worried about their jobs and mortgages, will hear the Chancellor’s talk of safe havens and conclude that he is either deeply complacent or in complete denial about what is happening in our country.

Since the Chancellor’s economic policies have started to kick in, well before the latest bout of financial market instability, confidence has collapsed and our economy has flatlined for nine months, growing slower than that of the US and the eurozone. On the latest OBR figures, before growth forecasts—which the Chancellor today confirmed—were to be downgraded yet again, the borrowing forecast was £46 billion higher than the Chancellor planned.

We need a tough, medium-term plan to get our deficit down, but it is the Chancellor’s reckless policies—too far, too fast—which have ripped out the house’s foundations and left our economy deeply exposed to the brewing global hurricane. Yet, despite all the evidence and with our stock market falling 10% or more this week, the Chancellor still claims that his policies are working and that we are a safe haven. Despite the evidence of the past two years from credit default swaps and the fact that, in the past week, long-term interest rates have fallen in Britain and in the US, he still claims that falling UK long-term bond yields are a sign of enhanced credibility and not of stagnant growth in our economy. Does he not remember that the Japanese Ministry of Finance briefly took some comfort from low and falling bond yields in the early 1990s, at the beginning of a lost decade of no growth and stagnation? However many times he says that his plan is working, that does not make it true. However, many times he claims that he has restored confidence or delivered on deficit reduction, that does not make it true.

We know that the Chancellor has spent the past fortnight in Hollywood, but he cannot just write the script and watch it come to life. That is not how things work in the real world. If he will not take it from me, perhaps he should hear the words of Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize winner, who said:

“Britain’s experiment in austerity is going really, really badly. But the Chancellor of the Exchequer is finding solace in… fantasy… the wolf is at the door and Osborne thinks it’s the confidence fairy.”

The Chancellor finds the state of the British economy reassuring; we find it deeply worrying. He rejects our call for action now, including a temporary VAT cut, and vows to plough on regardless. We say that this approach is deeply incautious and reckless. The eurozone is in crisis. America is in political paralysis. The British economy is flatlining. Global markets are in turmoil. The world desperately needs strong and united leadership. Here in Britain, we need our Chancellor to get out of his complacent denial and get back to reality before it is too late.

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Posted August 12th, 2011 by Ed