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William Keegan on business
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    This Thatcherite chancellor’s dependence on communist China for energy is just one of many symptoms of his erratic approach to capital expenditure

    Our chancellor could not resist it. Once again, while presenting the latest revisions to his “long-term plan”, he dragged up the Labour chief secretary Liam Byrne’s line in 2010 that “there’s no money left”. I say line, because it was not a spoken remark but a phrase contained in the customary written note from the outgoing chief secretary to the incoming one, who happened – for what turned out to be a very short time – to be the Liberal Democrat David Laws.

    This was meant to be a joke, and Treasury officials thought it was bad form for Laws to publicise a private letter. But the joke rebounded on Byrne and Labour, and the Conservatives are still milking it all these years later. And last week shadow chancellor John McDonnell tried a deliberately more public joke with his production of Chairman Mao’s little red book. This backfired too, and the Tories will milk it mercilessly as well.

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    David Cameron is swimming in deep waters in Brussels: it may yet fall to his steady, broadly pro-European opposition to hand him a referendum victory

    In his Antimémoires, the French writer and politician André Malraux recalls a conversation with President de Gaulle after the second world war in which De Gaulle said he planned to nationalise the banks and public utilities.

    But he went on to emphasise that he was going to do this “not for the sake of the left but for the sake of France”.

    The question ‘who is the real David Cameron?’ intrigues me much more than ‘who is the real George Osborne?’

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    David Cameron is under fire from the press and Tory MPs. It would become him to act more courteously to the pro-Europeans on the other side of the house

    The cuts are getting closer to home. Last weekend, an 86-year-old near neighbour died in a house fire when he might have been rescued had the fire brigade not been suffering from a programme of cutbacks.

    One can never be sure in such cases, but the London secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, Paul Embery, pointed out the fire engines were significantly later on the scene than they should have been. Thanks to the cuts to local authority budgets which are an integral feature of George Osborne’s austerity policy, and reductions in the fire service being energetically pursued by the mayor of London, the borough of Islington has reportedly lost 60% of its fire cover in the past three years. The Islington Tribune– a newspaper David Cameron says he regularly subscribes to – reports that this leaves “just two engines for a borough with a population of more than 200,000”.

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    The Leave campaign’s idea that renegotiation of trade terms with the EU will be easy is absurd. We will be suppliant outsiders, just as we were in the 1950s

    When I told a senior government official that I had put £20 on Brexit as an insurance policy – we believers in Europe will need something to cheer us up if the vote goes that way – his reply was: “Only twenty quid?”

    This reaction epitomises the extremely gloomy mood among most of my pro-European friends and acquaintances. And while they dismiss Alexander “Boris” Johnson’s antics as beneath contempt, many people are surprised at the way my old friend Lord Lawson is putting himself around as someone who boasts about living in France but is blithely relaxed about the prospect of Brexit, indeed actively propagating it.

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    The chancellor’s doctrinaire insistence on a surplus in both current and capital accounts is truly astonishing in a looming worldwide economic slowdown

    The more one sees of George Osborne – and this is not a chancellor who keeps himself to himself – the more he appears to be a practitioner of the false economy.

    Everyone knows what a false economy is: you make a shortsighted saving which only serves to postpone the agony and leads to the need for greater expenditure in the future. In Osborne’s case, this criticism applies at both the macro level (policy that affects the workings of the economy as a whole) and the micro level (policy that affects individual sectors, both public and private, and the household).

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    Cameron and Osborne blame their spending cuts on the Blair/Brown legacy, when really it’s all about their obsession with tax cuts

    I did not get where I am today predicting the future of the Labour party’s electoral prospects; nor, for that matter, by forecasting the outcome of a referendum called by a prime minister prepared to gamble with the future of the United Kingdom in order to keep his party in office.

    For, although it may now be conventional wisdom that Ed Miliband was never going to win an election in a thousand years, it did not seem such an odds-on bet to David Cameron at the time, when, frightened by the threat to his position by Ukip and his Conservative colleagues, he committed himself to the coming referendum.

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    George Osborne is now warning of ‘dangerous complacency’ just months after his notably complacent performance in the autumn statement

    Dangerous cocktails were in evidence in many a bar during the Christmas and New Year holidays. I do not know how many the chancellor might have sampled, but his demeanour appears to have been transformed from one of blatant complacency in his autumn statement to pre-budget nerves. He now warns of “a dangerous cocktail of new threats” and, yes, “creeping complacency” in the British economic and political debate.

    This is not, of course, anything to do with him and the complacency he was fostering as recently as before Christmas. No, this is mainly because of threats to the global economic recovery emanating from a manifest slowdown in China and the impact the collapse of oil prices is having on the economies and finances of oil-producing nations – with the obvious exception of the oil-producing country known as the United States, whose “fracking” boom has made no small contribution to oversupply and falling prices in energy markets.

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    Being in the EU but outside the euro and Schengen is highly advantageous - and far better than anything that could be achieved by leaving and renegotiating

    ‘We should miss Britain a lot. But Britain would miss the European Union even more.” The speaker was a senior member of the Italian government, in response to a question about the attitude of Italians to the thorny issue of Brexit. The occasion was the annual Venice Seminar, where members of the Italian government speak frankly, but not for direct attribution, on the political and economic scene.

    For many years the views expressed at those seminars about the Italian economy have been a triumph of hope over experience. For example, the Italian economy managed, after the initial impact of the great recession of 2008-10, to contract further in 2011 and 2012 when even the British economy was beginning to recover.

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    The corridors of power contain sceptics about everything from Europe to austerity. But nothing flickers on the imperturbable Treasury facade

    One of the key negotiators of the terms of UK entry to the European Economic Community in the early 1970s went down in history as a loyal servant of prime minister Edward Heath, but himself had doubts about the entire venture.

    The man in question, who is, as they say, no longer with us, would no doubt have been of great interest to the present band of Eurosceptics whom David Cameron is trying, if not exactly to win over, at least to pacify. His view was simple, and could be broadly paraphrased as: “Why did we fight the second world war if we end up doing this?”

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    The chancellor is becoming increasingly hamstrung both by his political propaganda and his own self-imposed rules

    It would be interesting to know if George Osborne, while preparing last week’s budget, had time to see the first instalment of Norma Percy’s television series on the Obama White House. If so he might have been reminded of something historically interesting, namely a matter about which the chancellor, who fancies himself as a historian, has not been straight with the public.

    More or less from his arrival in the Oval Office in 2009, Barack Obama’s first year was dominated by the financial crisis. And, curious though it may seem to the many who have swallowed Osborne’s propaganda, the banking crisis in the US, rather like the banking crisis in the rest of the developed world, was not caused by Labour.

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    The publication of the worst figures since the war should set alarm bells ringing. This is the deficit the austerity chancellor should have been concerned about

    A record balance of payments deficit of £96.2bn (5.2% of GDP) for 2015, and £32.7bn (7% of GDP) for the fourth quarter alone – both higher in percentage terms than in any year since the second world war – and the first, instinctive reaction of the government is to let what is left of our steel industry go hang, so that imports can be boosted even further.

    These latest figures are horrifying in both cash terms and as a percentage of GDP. During the war, when this country was, economically, on its uppers, the balance of payments deficit reached some 10%, financed by the Lend Lease arrangements with Washington and by running down our overseas assets.

    Related: Steel crisis: builders, manufacturers and carmakers urged to buy British

    The crunch has now come with the impact austerity has had on business investment and the export sector

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    Our balance of payments situation is so poor that a 10% weakening in sterling would be no bad thing – if there were not such a risk of things getting out of hand

    Ever since his first written evidence to the Treasury committee, the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has hinted that he understands the UK’s real deficit problem. This is not the budget deficit, of which chancellor Osborne has made such a fetish, but the balance of payments deficit.

    Indeed, that distinguished former permanent secretary to the Treasury and cabinet secretary, Lord Turnbull, recently pointed out that debt owed to citizens of this country is not a problem – and that by not borrowing more for infrastructure at such low rates, Osborne is actually impoverishing future generations. He is, said Turnbull, “playing a dirty game”.

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    A vintage performance by the former PM on the EU referendum was in marked contrast to that of his buffoonish rival

    Extraordinary, is it not? The political, financial and media worlds are obsessed by a referendum we could do without, called to sort out problems of Conservative party management that will almost certainly not be resolved, and masterminded by a prime minister who is desperately dependent on the support of the Labour party to avoid humiliation.

    On a typical day last week we had the menacingly mendacious Alexander (Boris) Johnson being taken far more seriously than he should – what do you make of a man who tells his close friends we must stay in the European Union and then, for nakedly ambitious reasons, goes back on his word?

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    The economic challenges facing Britain will not go away, whether we stay or leave after 23 June

    This is all absurd; yet it is also very important, with serious implications for the future of the UK and the rest of Europe. Yes: in or out, we shall still belong to the continent of Europe. Moreover, given that the rest of the world also seems to be taking an interest, the outcome of the 23 June referendum can hardly be invested with too much importance.

    Apart from anything else, a Brexit vote would almost certainly add to the growing dissatisfaction with the EU in many continental countries. There are even fears of a domino effect.

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    Economic discontent over globalisation leaves many voters wavering. Corbyn and McDonnell could make a decisive intervention for Remain if they chose

    Brexit is pointless – utterly pointless. It cannot even be distinguished by the label “project”, because the Brexit people are unable tell us with an ounce of conviction what they have in store.

    The essence of their campaign is entirely negative: keep out immigrants – although some of the more prominent Brexiters, in common with so many of us, are descended from immigrants – and take a leap into the economic and trading unknown. The supply chains of so much business are now trans-European, but these would be needlessly disrupted as the nation turned in on itself. No wonder the markets are unsettled; and those of us with long memories know that when markets become seriously unsettled, it is difficult to prevent things from getting totally out of hand.

    So far the impression is that the Labour leaders have been half-hearted about their conversion to the European cause

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    In the catalogue of catastrophic misjudgments made by prime ministers, what David Cameron has done to Britain ranks very high

    ‘Here we are, and the question is: where do we go from here?” Thus spoke one of David Cameron’s (and my) political heroes, after a crisis that bore little comparison with the ordeal that our prime minister has recently put us all through.

    The speaker was Harold Macmillan, a true one nation Tory; Cameron claims to be one too, but he has often been sidetracked by the appalling, rightwing, Eurosceptical element in the party he has now given up trying to lead.

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    The economic consequences of this terrible mistake require us to make an urgent retreat

    One should have thought that in the production of Richard III at Islington’s Almeida theatre on the night the referendum results were declared, the cast would have relished the following exchange:

    Richard: What news abroad?
    Hastings: No news so bad abroad as this at home.

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    Delaying the triggering of Article 50 until next year may offer time for common sense to prevail and parliament to reassert its sovereignty

    It was while I was on my way out of a reception, amid the imperial grandeur of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that I learned that our new prime minister had appointed Brexit’s most charismatic liar as her – and, I am afraid, our – foreign secretary.

    What a farce. What an insult to us all, and to the world at large. Last week, Alexander “Boris” Johnson got what he deserved from the American press corps travelling with the US secretary of state, John Kerry. They had little time for such characteristically blustering nonsense as Johnson’s protestation: “There is a rich thesaurus of things that I have said that have, one way or the other, I don’t know how … been misconstrued.”

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    The former chancellor’s fiscal policies have been disastrous, but he fought for a worthy cause in trying to keep Britain in Europe

    For, I trust, understandable reasons, this column has been so preoccupied with the demons released by the referendum that we have not taken time to refer to the departure from the government of one George Osborne.

    His summary dismissal was long overdue, but it took a new prime minister – memorably described by one of Osborne’s predecessors, Kenneth Clarke, as “a bloody difficult woman” – to do the deed.

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    Theresa May’s new government is unshowy and serious for a good reason: there are sobering times, and sobering budgets, ahead

    No one can accuse the English of not being perverse! A number of post-referendum analyses have produced some intriguing results. Many of the areas of the country that were the most obvious beneficiaries of funds from Brussels or the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg voted to leave the European Union. And, although the initial impression that there was a big protest vote in the north seems to have been borne out by further study, it also emerges that the number of Leave voters in the north was easily exceeded by those in the more prosperous south.

    Bogus claims about “sovereignty”, and ill-judged bleating about “Brussels”, influenced many people I met, even before we were presented with the results. This was one reason why I expressed such nervousness in advance, the other being that most people did not seem to appreciate that, in the last month or so, most of the bets with the bookmakers were on Brexit even though the quoted odds were distorted by the weight of big money that had been placed earlier on Remain: that was before everything in the campaign seemed, from the point of view of us Remainers, to go wrong.

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