Before heading off for his summer breakMark Carney said the risks of a no-deal Brexit were uncomfortably high. Last week Philip Hammond warned the Treasury would take an £80bn hit if negotiations between Britain and the EU failed completely.
There is a risk to this latest manifestation of Project Fear. If the public really thinks that in eight months’ time Britain is going to be plunged into the economic equivalent of a nuclear winter, the economy will take a serious hit.
So far, though, people seem relatively relaxed and haven’t spent the bank holiday weekend stripping supermarket shelves of baked beans and bottled water. While opinion polls show that voters think – rightly – that the government is making a pig’s ear of the Brexit negotiations, the state of the economy suggests they are taking what Carney and Hammond say with a pinch of salt.
Last week’s survey of manufacturing and retail sales from the CBI were both solid, unemployment was last lower in early 1975, and the public finances smashed expectations last month with the biggest July surplus in almost two decades. If nothing else, the thought that he will have more money to play with in the autumn budget should cheer the chancellor up a bit.
While not exactly booming, the UK grew faster than the eurozone in the second quarter and is doing a lot better than the Treasury predicted before the EU referendum. There has been no collapse in house prices, no 500,000 increase in unemployment, no two-year recession.
The poor track record of the Treasury (and the the Bank of England, for that matter) is one reason consumers and businesses do not appear to be hunkering down for a catastrophic recession next year. What’s more, the scepticism about official forecasting is entirely justified. Neither the Bank nor the Treasury spotted the financial crisis coming and both wildly underestimated the damage it would cause.
The economy is now about 15% smaller than it would have been had its pre-recession growth rate continued, something that took the Bank, the Treasury and the Office for Budget Responsibility (the body that now does Hammond’s economic forecasts) by surprise. So the Treasury’s confident assertion that the economy could be 10% smaller by 2030 in the event of a no-deal Brexit needs to be treated with caution.
No question, the warnings from Carney and Hammond have some impact. The governor and the chancellor are responsible for the economy and they make headline news. What they say matters. But their influence can be overstated, because most people are too busy getting on with their lives to worry about whether the Bank and the Treasury are radiating gloom and despondency.
Interest in, and awareness of, political developments is much less than imagined. People tune in just before elections, make up their minds based – to a considerable extent – on how well they and their families are faring, vote, and then tune out again.
When David Cameron won the 2015 election, voters thought that was it for another five years. Theresa May’s mistake was to ask them to go to the polls only two years later and, even worse, to do so when living standards were falling as a result of the post-referendum fall in the value of the pound. There could hardly have been a worse time to call an election than in mid-term when real incomes were falling and the electorate was suffering from austerity fatigue.
The summer of 2018 would not have been a perfect time to fight an election either but it would have been better than June 2017. Inflation has started to come down because the impact of sterling’s fall has faded, and this has resulted in gently rising real incomes.
Unemployment has continued to fall – it is now below 4% – and there are plenty of job vacancies. Most people who want a job can find one, even if it is not the sort of job they want, with the hours they want, at the pay rates they want. Taken together, rising incomes plus greater job security means people are less gloomy about their own finances than they are about the prospects for the economy as a whole.
Understandably, perhaps, businesses have been more cautious about investment but just as there have been companies threatening to leave the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit there have been high-profile examples – such as Google and Apple – of companies announcing plans to expand in Britain.
The assumption these multinational companies are making is that Britain is not going to crash out of the EU next March because eventually a deal will be done. Financial markets think the same, putting the chances of no deal at 10%.
This is a reasonable assumption. The history of EU negotiations is that victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat with an agreement made at the very last minute. With the eurozone economy not in especially good health, there is no real appetite in any European capital for a no-deal outcome.
Clearly, it makes sense to be prepared for all Brexit outcomes, but the public has yet to take seriously the more lurid warnings of apocalypse to come.
Expert forecasting is discredited. Life is a bit better than it was a year ago. There is still an expectation that London and Brussels will orchestrate a political fix. For all these reasons, people don’t really believe that at the end of March 2019 there will be no food in the shops, hospitals will be running short of medicines and that planes will be prevented from flying. A no-deal Brexit is seen as another millennium bug.