Leading article: The Chancellor's defining choice

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Although mounting evidence of economic woe is upping the pressure for more quantitative easing (QE) from the Bank of England, it is George Osborne who is approaching a crossroads. Which way he turns may come to define his chancellorship.

The economic outlook is certainly a concern. Construction is on the slide; manufacturing activity is already contracting; consumer confidence has fallen for three months in a row – and that is just the last week's clutch of metrics. Elsewhere in the world, the signs are equally inauspicious.

Given such a climate, it might be tempting to turn to QE as a quick-fix solution to economic torpor. But the temptation must be resisted, at least in the short term. Not only is QE less effective as a stimulus the more it is used, but the Bank of England's most desperate measure to boost liquidity ought not to be a substitute for action from Mr Osborne.

Economic recovery was a crucial constituent of the Government's plan to eliminate the budget deficit in a single Parliament. Without it, Mr Osborne is faced with a choice. And the growth plan he has promised for the autumn must make it clear which it is to be.

The Chancellor cannot isolate Britain from global economic pressures, but he can help us to weather the storm. Either, as a growing army of economists advises, he must reverse or delay some of the £81bn of public spending cuts. Or he must spell out alternatives that will take up the slack, such as loosening tax rules for business investments, to stimulate much-needed capital spending. Consumers and businesses are not spending their money, because they think the economic situation is getting worse. If he is not to change tack, Mr Osborne must explain why and how his spending cuts do not make a slump unavoidable.

Another round of QE should remain a nuclear option, for use in a moment of acute crisis. Now is the time for a move from the Chancellor. He does not have very long.