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You Can’t Build a Recovery on These Foundations

This week, the Tories had the opportunity to lay the foundations for a recovery – instead they rolled out a series of gimmicks and short-term measures which will be redundant before the summer is out.

In Wednesday’s mini-budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced several headline-grabbing spending commitments. For now, at least, the Conservative Party appears to have executed an almost perfect U-turn on its approach to borrowing and spending. 

But the targeting and delivery of government spending matters just as much as size. How do Sunak’s initiatives measure up?

The youth jobs guarantee is certainly better than waiting for the end of the furlough scheme with nothing in place to support young people. But it is far from the ideal policy: the government will effectively guarantee the provision of low-wage private sector jobs for six months.

If economic activity has returned to pre-crisis levels by the time the scheme ends, it may – at best – be enough to ensure a resumption of the pre-crisis labour market status quo of precarious low-productivity employment for young people. If, however, the economic recovery stalls, it will have turned out to be a sticking plaster over an infected wound.

The same is true of the £1,000 “furlough bonus.” This will push back the cliff edge of mass unemployment a month or two. But without a solid economic recovery, it only delays the inevitable. The majority of firms that will take advantage of the payout are likely to retain staff anyway – much of the £9 billion total may turn out to be a disguised handout for larger corporations.

VAT cuts for the hospitality and tourism sectors will have few persistent effects, and may not even stimulate demand in the short-term if fear of the virus does not abate. It is hard to see a justification for the stamp duty holiday.

The short-sightedness of these policies illustrates the lack of any strategy to manage the long-term sectoral shifts that are likely to result from the pandemic. We don’t yet know if hospitality and high-street retail will ever recover to pre-corona activity levels. Rather than planning for such eventualities, Sunak appears content to wait and see.

The overriding theme of the package is can-kicking. Whether it succeeds, even its own limited terms, is contingent on both viral transmission remaining under control and a strong economic bounce-back. Both are far from guaranteed.

The “eat out to help out” scheme, for example, has the potential to backfire. The scheme – announced alongside footage of a maskless Sunak delivering food to restaurant diners – aims to entice the public back into restaurants and pubs, as a way to support the UK’s large hospitality industry.

But as the former director of the WHO, Anthony Costello, notes, “it’s very odd in Britain that we’re opening pubs before schools. It says something about our priorities… in an indoor space there’s a lot of potential to be a super-spreader.”

The half price meals giveaway will not age well if it turns out that reopening pubs and restaurants leads to a significant increase in Covid transmission. A better approach would be keep much of the hospitality sector in suspended animation for a month or two longer by extending income support.

It is also hard to avoid the contrast with the provision of free school meals over the summer: a government that refused to provide basic nutrition to vulnerable children until shamed into it by a Premier League footballer is now cheerfully handing out half price meal deals.

Overall, Sunak’s latest announcements strengthen the impression that this is not a government that is interested in making structural changes to a system that is fundamentally broken. Instead, it is willing to commit large sums in an attempt to return to the fragile and unsustainable economy that prevailed before the crisis struck – an economy that is itself the product of Osborne and Hammond’s determination not to spend.

Of course, Sunak’s package generated the inevitable headlines highlighting overall increases in spending and borrowing. But the commentary about rising deficit spending and the need to “pay back the debt” further down the line is not useful. Even with the latest increases in spending, current very low interest rates mean that government finances will remain manageable for the foreseeable future.

Instead of commentators obsessing about short-term shifts in the public finances, the focus should be on a sustainable long-term plan to stabilise the economy. The deficit will only close when the virus is under control, and the economy is back on track.

Sunak’s latest announcements do little to move in this direction. It is possible that he will get lucky, the gamble on reopening the hospitality sector will pay off, and we will see something close to a V-shaped recovery. But it is also possible that by the time the Autumn Statement comes around, Sunak will find himself facing rising unemployment alongside ongoing viral transmission.

More spending will be forthcoming. Hopefully by then he will also have a plan for how to use it.