One of the most significant statements of Osborne’s Chancellorship is also one of its most overlooked. It was delivered to a meeting of the International Monetary Fund, over three years ago, and it focused on a trio of risks to Britain’s then nascent recovery. They were, in his words, “continued instability in the euro area, the US fiscal cliff and slowing in emerging markets”. After the early optimism and complacency of the Coalition years, the Chancellor was starting to worry.
The nature of the risks may have changed in the meantime, but the Chancellor’s worries have persisted. This was clear from another one of his most significant statements, delivered at the start of 2014, and containing the line: “it’s far too soon to say: job done.” And it’s clear too from the speech he gave in Cardiff last week, which shook up a “dangerous cocktail of new threats from around the world”. Slowing growth, stock market instability, falling oil prices; these are all parts of the concoction that mixologist Osborne is currently serving.
All of which belies a caricature that has been drawn of the Chancellor: that, as I’ve put it before, he’s confident to the point of being cocksure. There is far too much apprehension in his words for that to be true, and there has been for a while now. Last week’s speech shouldn’t have been met with shock in the newspapers. It was just another thread in a pattern he has been weaving for years.
Or was it? If there was anything that distinguished Osborne’s speech in Cardiff it was less its content and more its timing. The start of 2016 is the start of a year in which the Government will, apparently, complete its renegotiation of our relationship with the European Union, and then possibly hold a referendum on the results. Risk is a constant in all years. In this year it’s also a slogan. Hence why there was a whiff of politics to the Chancellor’s question: “So what is our response to the current risks in the global economy?” And his own answer: “It’s not to cut ourselves off, and isolate Britain.”
James Forsyth details this approach in a fine article for the latest issue of The Spectator. The Conservative leadership, he writes, is determined to campaign for Britain remaining in the EU, and will do so by stoking voters’ fears about the world outside. Much of this will have little to do with economics: ISIS, Russian expansionism, organised crime, etc. But economic risks will surely be invoked as well. After all, the Chancellor is already on the case.
This elision of Osborne’s apprehensiveness with the demands of a political campaign is a peculiar thing. The latter might cause people to doubt the former, and wonder: are these risks to our economy real, or are they just for show? It’s a difficult question to answer, for risks always have a touch of the unreal about them. They might be out there, like the wolf in a fairy tale, but they might not be out to get us. You can only be truly sure when they batter down the door and start gnawing on your legs. At which point, they stop being risks, and turn into emergencies.
From the catalogue of risks that Osborne produced last week, the one that has turned the most is probably the fall in oil prices. As a net importer of oil and petroleum products, Britain might be able to withstand this great and ongoing economic shock. But, as I explained in yesterday’s To The Point post, even we are already experiencing some of its least friendly effects. The Office for Budget Responsibility has downgraded all of its forecasts for the tax revenue accruing from the oil and gas industry. The Chancellor may have to start raising fuel duty to compensate.
As for all the other risks – the inconsistencies of the Chinese economy, the persistent problems of the Eurozone, the slowdown of emerging nations – it’s really too soon to determine whether they will tip into being emergencies for the world and our small corner of it. I tried to enumerate Britain’s exposure to China in a post last summer, yet my abacus was filled with ifs and buts. As so often, we cannot know.
We cannot know. After the experiences of the last Parliament, those three words ought to be hung in bronze above the doors of the Treasury. Sadly, they are not. At the last Autumn Statement, the Chancellor benefited from a £27 billion revision to the public finances, but he decided to spend most of it, rather than reduce the deficit faster. This is questionable policy in uncertain times. As the head of the OBR, Robert Chote, memorably put it last week, “what the sofa gives, the sofa can easily take away.”
If risk is to become one of the defining themes of this year, then Osborne is risking something himself. It would look stupid for a Chancellor, let alone someone who could be our next Prime Minister, to wave so many warning flags, yet leave our country unprepared for the worst. The next Budget will have to prove that he doesn’t just feel apprehensive; he acts on it too.