Editorial: Whatever happened to those green shoots?

Britain is bumping along the bottom, with no signs of imminent improvement

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Sure enough, any optimism inspired by last month's unexpectedly healthy economic growth figures – which showed Britain bounding out of recession – has been thoroughly dowsed by the string of more downbeat indicators that have followed.

First, inflation. Many economists blame Britain's slow recovery from the financial crisis as much on unexpectedly high inflation as on either Government cuts or the ructions in the eurozone. Hence the relief when commodity prices eased and the rate finally started falling. Now, however, it is edging back up again and the Bank of England is predicting it will not drop below the two per cent target until 2014. Not good news for consumer spending.

Then there is the labour market. Employment levels have, thus far, remained remarkably resilient. But, although yesterday's headline joblessness number is a cheery one – showing unemployment down to its lowest level for more than a year – the month-by-month breakdown suggests the gains are faltering.

Taken together, then, the picture is of an economy not so much recovering as bumping along the bottom. Nor is there reason to expect any meaningful improvement in the near future. Indeed, the Bank of England has revised its forecasts for 2013 down again and does not expect the economy to be back at pre-crisis levels for another three years. In the meantime Britain faces an "unappealing mix of weak recovery and high inflation," says the Governor.

Gloomy, perhaps; but the situation is neither surprising nor, arguably, avoidable – given the scale of the debt that the bursting of the credit bubble has left Government and individuals alike needing to pay down. If the economic climate appears inclement now, though, it is as nothing to what we will endure if the headwinds from the eurozone grow stronger.

That tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Europe yesterday to protest against government austerity is worrying enough – an indication of the political strains that now threaten to precipitate a crisis, even as the danger from the bond markets has (at least momentarily) receded. More concerning still is that there is so much more economic pain to come. After a brutal 2.5 per cent slump in eurozone industrial production in September, the sharpest decline since just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, is it any wonder that business confidence is sliding and predictions of imminent eurozone-wide recession are rife?

Such is the inauspicious background against which the Chancellor is putting together the Autumn Statement. George Osborne has some political cover from Britain's return to growth in the third quarter, but he is scrabbling to make the numbers add up nonetheless, and there is a widespread expectation that he will be forced to acknowledge that, thanks to the marked absence of the expected recovery, his debt-cutting target will not be met.

The situation in Europe will – reasonably enough – feature highly in the Chancellor's explanations. But it cannot let him off the hook entirely. Even as lists of high-priority, economy-boosting infrastructure investments are being talked up, the Government is getting in the way elsewhere. Political bickering over the Energy Bill is a case in point, endangering investment in one of Britain's neediest, and most productive, sectors. Shilly-shallying over airport capacity in the South-east is also an opportunity lost.

Recovery from the financial crisis was always going to be tough. Between the stagnation at home and the uncertainties in Europe, it is now clearer than ever just what that means.

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