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Artillery Row

Do MPs understand what Sunak admitted today?

If MPs felt the cut to foreign aid was today’s worst news then they were not listening

Rishi Sunak delivered his spending review statement to the Commons in so measured, so calm, so reasonable-sounding a manner, that it was hard to digest that what he was actually conveying was a considerably more serious situation than any post-war chancellor had articulated from the same despatch box.

The devaluation of sterling in 1967 or the chaotic last hours of the ERM in 1992 were disconcerting events, from which the UK’s finances soon bounced back. Denis Healey’s appeal to the IMF for a bailout in 1976 was a moment of national humiliation. But frankly, Britain in the 1970s was not remotely as indebted as the country finds itself now.

It is a symptom of the dreamworld inhabited by those parliamentarians and commentators who consider that the biggest story from today’s statement is that, at a moment when the government has shut down much of its economy and is wracking-up debt on a historic scale to keep going, the UK will send the equivalent of 0.5 percent of its gross national income in international aid, rather than then 0.7 percent the government promised to uphold in its 2019 manifesto. It may indeed be a sad day, and that foreign countries will think less of Britain as a result (although do they think less of France’s 0.4 percent or Australia’s or Canada’s 0.2 percent offer? Do they think more of Luxembourg for spending 1 percent?). But compared to what else was announced – including the pay freeze for many public sector workers – it is representative of the least of Britain’s current problems.

MP after MP – many of them Conservative – rose in the chamber to gloss over the Treasury’s ruinous forecasts to focus on the temporary cut of about £4 billion to the international aid budget. All five living former prime ministers have censured the reduction, without sharing with us their wider perception of how grave the national finances are and what they would do about it.

Making the cut will involve legislation and there will be at least twenty Conservative MPs who will vote against it, likely including Theresa May, whose opposition to her successor’s government is becoming a grand melody for a career that previously lacked a hummable tune. Twenty to thirty Tory rebels would be manageable. But if the rebellion spreads significantly, it is a vote that the government could yet lose.

Theresa May’s opposition to her successor’s government is becoming a grand melody for a career that previously lacked a hummable tune

It is certainly not unreasonable to protest against this cut to overseas aid. Perhaps it is the wrong priority and MPs should not flinch from identifying which other austerity measure they would recommend instead. But the dream world exists for those among them who think that spending £4 billion less on foreign development was the worst imaginable part of the chancellor’s announcement.  Were the headline numbers spelt-out by Rishi Sunak simply so large as to have no tangible purchase on the mind? Do MPs think borrowing has no consequences at a time of 0.1 percent interest rates and when so much debt is being bought by the Bank of England’s £895 billion QE programme?

the British economy will contract by over 11 percent this year – the greatest fall in 300 years. There was a time when this would have been newsworthy

If so, then there is a hard reckoning coming. “The UK is forecast to borrow a total of £394 billion this year, equivalent to 19% of GDP. The highest recorded level of borrowing in our peacetime history,” the chancellor informed the house with the calm of station platform announcer. “Underlying debt – after removing the temporary effect of the Bank of England’s asset purchases – is forecast to be 91.9% of GDP this year. And due to elevated borrowing levels, and a forecast persistent deficit, underlying debt is forecast to continue rising in every year, reaching 97.5% of GDP in 2025-26.”

There will doubtless never be an academic consensus on the Reinhard-Rogoff theory’s attempts to put a precise figure on the hit to economic performance suffered when debt-to-GDP exceeds 90 percent. But the UK is going to be an interesting case study for those who think about such things. Few of them who are also legislators were making Commons speeches or giving their thoughts to journalists this afternoon. Perhaps sensibly Anneliese Dodds, the shadow chancellor, in her reply focused on missteps and exclusions, cuts and extravagances, without saying what Labour would do about the debtberg looming towards the country’s stern.

This is debt that is going to be around for a very long time, and likely still waiting to be repaid when interest rates start to go back up, as at some stage they presumably must (the current 0.1 percent is difficult to beat). The OBR, in any case, is assuming that there are no further economic shocks heading our way for the rest of this parliament.

As the chancellor detailed, the OBR forecast is for the British economy to contract by over 11 percent this year – the greatest fall in 300 years. There was a time when this would have been newsworthy. But the daily drip from months of Covid misery has altered perceptions of normality. At best, it will be the Christmas of 2022 before output is back to where it was at the beginning of this year – and that presumes a speedy resumption of economic behaviour during the course of next year. There will be long-term scarring, the true extent of which is difficult to be precise about.

Today was not the moment to settle the debate on whether the actions taken by Boris Johnson’s government to tackle Covid were an over-reaction. It is both too late (the deeds are done) and too early to have a genuine perspective, to answer that. The chancellor, at least, gives the impression he understands the severity of the consequences, even if he did no see a better alternative. It is not clear that many colleagues have that sense of perspective. Perhaps they will when the chancellor rises next year to talk about tax.

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