“Risk” was the word in George Osborne’s Mansion House speech last night. It, or variations of it, may only have appeared 14 times in this 3,500-word text, but their number was far outweighed by their significance. This was one of the most insistent warnings that the Chancellor has yet sounded about the risks that threaten to upset our recovery.
I counted four types of risk in particular:
- Global. I’ve tracked Osborne’s warnings about the rest of the world for some time now: the more concerned he is about, say, the Eurozone collapsing or about America’s public finances, the more he mentions it, it seems to me. And he certainly mentioned it last night. “Unpredictable geopolitics” and “the slowdown in some emerging markets” were also added to his list.
- Financial. The Chancellor placed heavy emphasis on pre-empting the next scandal in the financial sector – which suggests that he thinks there is a scandal to pre-empt. To this end, he announced a series of review into various markets. As he put it, “Let us not wait for the next wave of scandals in financial markets to hit us before we respond.”
- Residential. You’ve probably seen that Osborne said a few things about housing, including a new policy to allow the Bank of England to cap mortgage lending. It was telling just how firm he was on housing, both in defence of Help to Buy: “the facts show that Help to Buy is working as intended.” But also in anguish at house prices: “If London prices were to continue growing at these rates that would be too fast for comfort.”
- Political. Along with the implicit references to Labour – “self-defeating bonus taxes and punitive income tax rates” – Osborne also criticised what he called the “populist right”. No doubt he wants to return to the “Santa Claus attack” on UKIP: that they’re promising goodies for everyone, but that you shouldn’t believe in them.
Of course, all this talk of risk serves two political purposes for Osborne. First, it prepares voters for the worst, which is always handy even if the worst doesn’t arrive. Second, it’s another component of what will be one of the Conservatives’ main messages at the next election: that the repair job isn’t finished, so please don’t Labour’s wreckers back in.
And it was all supported by Mark Carney’s own warning: that interest rates may be rising sooner than many observers expect. A sign that the recovery is entrenched? Perhaps. But it’s not entirely certain how the economy will stand without the crutch of emergency-low rates, nor how some folks will cope with the higher borrowing costs.
Risk, as Osborne would have it, abounds.