UK downgrade pressures reluctant Osborne to change course

LONDON Sun Feb 24, 2013 3:47pm IST

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne is seen speaking in Bournemouth, southern England in this February 4, 2013 file photograph. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth/Files

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne is seen speaking in Bournemouth, southern England in this February 4, 2013 file photograph.

Credit: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth/Files

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LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's finance minister insisted on Saturday he would not change course after the loss of the country's 'AAA' credit rating but George Osborne is facing pressure to do just that as his bet on austerity falters ahead of the 2015 election.

Moody's dealt Britain its first sovereign rating downgrade on Friday, saying the $2.5 trillion economy faced years more sluggish growth and debt would continue to rise until 2016.

Economically the one-notch cut will have limited importance -- most of Europe, Japan and the United States have already suffered the same fate and Britain continues to borrow at historically low rates.

But politically it is toxic for Osborne who has repeatedly vowed to protect the top credit rating since the 2010 election campaign. The downgrade exposes him to opponents who say his failure to deliver economic growth is driving Prime Minister David Cameron towards electoral defeat.

Osborne said on Saturday the move by Moody's showed he was right to focus on restoring Britain to fiscal health, arguing that only by doing that will the conditions for growth be restored.

"I am absolutely determined to make sure we deal with our problems, to make sure that Britain stays the course, to make sure that it doesn't take from this credit rating the wrong message which is we should go and borrow a lot more," the 41-year-old Chancellor of the Exchequer said.

"I'm absolutely clear we're not going to do that."

For investors, the downgrade underscores Britain's predicament: a debt-ridden, stagnating economy which has kept bond yields low in large part thanks to the Bank of England becoming the world's biggest investor in UK government debt by buying it with newly printed money.

"Osborne no longer has any place to hide or anyone to blame," said David Blanchflower, who served on the Bank of England's interest rate setting committee from 2006 to 2009.

He said the minister should "stand up, be a man and accept responsibility for the worst recovery in 100 years" and, in a message on Twitter, suggested a swift cut to value-added tax, a labour tax holiday for workers under 25 and incentives for investment and hiring to kickstart growth.

Osborne can take comfort from Moody's confidence that his austerity plan would eventually "reverse the UK's debt trajectory".

A Treasury official noted Moody's had given the UK's credit rating a stable outlook, meaning little chance of a further downgrade in the next 12-18 months. When the United States and France were downgraded, their outlooks remained negative.

But whether growth will return forcefully long enough before the 2015 election to allow voters to appreciate it is now highly uncertain.

Sterling fell by almost a cent to around $1.5160 after the downgrade, just off Thursday's fresh 2-1/2-year low. Analysts said they expected it to fall further on Monday.

Some of the Conservatives' Liberal Democrat coalition partners questioned the political judgment of attaching so much importance to Britain's AAA rating.

"This is a self-inflicted injury for George Osborne," said Matthew Oakeshott, a former Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman. "To be fair, he was very green in 2009 ... He foolishly erected triple-A status as a virility symbol."

"BLEEDING THE PATIENT"

Cameron, who led his Conservative Party back to office as part of a coalition government after 13 years out of power, risks another year of stagnation and giving his opponents and open goal to aim at.

The Labour Party - which left the biggest peacetime deficit when it lost the 2010 election - called for Osborne's head.

"The medicine is not working so the Chancellor says increase the dose - that's crazy economics. It is like an 18th-century doctor bleeding a patient as they get sicker and sicker," said Ed Balls, the party's main spokesman on finance issues.

But people close to Britain's most powerful two politicians say they are completely aligned. Osborne led Cameron's bid for leadership of the Conservatives and ran the 2010 election campaign. There is little or no chance of him being sacrificed or being forced into a humiliating policy U-turn which would wreck his career.

"Osborne has lots of critics, both inside and outside the party, who are now going to be emboldened by this, but there is no coherent alternative," said Tim Montgomerie, editor of the influential ConservativeHome website.

Though Labour is about 10 percentage points ahead of Conservative Party in polls, surveys show voters trust Cameron and Osborne more than Labour's leader Ed Miliband.

TIME FOR A TWEAK?

Osborne originally gambled that by slashing spending, growth rates of between 2 and 3 percent would kick in from 2013.

But with Britain's banks still recovering from the financial crisis and many of its main trading partners in Europe stuck in recession, his debt targets will be missed. His room for more spending is limited as he tries to avoid pushing up yields on Britain's 1.29 trillion pounds of debt.

With government spending so restricted, many investors' hopes lie with the Bank of England. Its governor, Mervyn King, this month voted to restart government-bond buying. Although in the minority, his change of heart suggested the bank may be closer than expected to pursuing more stimulus.

If Osborne slows his debt reduction plans, he could upset bond investors and throw his deficit targets further off course.

"We should stick to the plan," said Kwasi Kwarteng, a Conservative lawmaker. "The prime minister would not want to be seen to be panicking, and he's committed to keeping George Osborne where he is."

"But we do also need to look at growth," said Kwarteng, who suggested cutting corporation tax and red tape.

Business lobby the Confederation of British Industry has called for more investment on infrastructure and housing to be funded by more cuts in day-to-day spending. It also expects the government to guarantee more private-sector projects.

Osborne has a chance in his annual budget next month to deliver such tweaks to policy.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas and William Schomberg. Editing by Mike Peacock)

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