Leading article: The economy determines the political battlefield

Weak growth is not good news for either Labour or the Conservatives

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Britain's long night of recession might, technically, be over, but anyone expecting a bright new morning will have been bitterly disappointed by the estimate of the Office for National Statistics that the economy grew by a meagre 0.1 per cent in the final quarter of 2009.

Among the disappointed will have been several of our political leaders. These figures are not good news for either the Government or the Conservatives. Gordon Brown hoped to get an electoral boost from a return to growth, believing that it would enable him to argue that Labour has successfully steered the country through recession and into better times. But these do not feel like better times (at least, not yet). And "0.1 per cent growth" is hardly something to plaster over Labour Party election leaflets.

The figures are also awkward for the Conservatives. In the expectation of news of a solid return to growth this week, the opposition have been talking up the need to begin cutting the deficit this year, rather than waiting for robust growth, as Labour and the Liberal Democrats both recommend. But when what growth there is could be the result of a statistical rounding error, this keenness for immediate austerity looks reckless.

With the economy in such a fragile state it is unclear whether Britain could cope with an abrupt removal of the fiscal stimulus provided by present levels of public spending. As the Conservative shadow Business Secretary, Ken Clarke, warned at the weekend: "It's no good trying to win brownie points by offering great cuts that are going to have calamitous consequences."

It also seems possible that without government measures such as the car scrappage scheme and the VAT cut, the second of which the Conservatives vociferously opposed, Britain might have seen no economic expansion at all in 2009. Weak growth poses difficult questions not only regarding Mr Brown's record, but also David Cameron's judgement.

For now, the important political question is: will the economy improve significantly before the election? For the answer we need to look to fundamentals. And these are not encouraging. Households are over-indebted and workers fearful of losing their jobs. Consumer spending is likely to remain weak as people continue to pay down debt. The return of VAT to 17.5 per cent will certainly not help persuade people to rush back to the shops.

Businesses are not investing either, largely because a hobbled banking sector is still constricting the supply of credit. The fall in the value of the pound should help our exporters. But this depreciation is no panacea because global demand for our wares is subdued. The rest of the developed world is suffering like Britain. Germany's mighty economy has shown signs of stuttering now that its own stimulus measures are coming to an end.

The defining features of Britain's recovery look likely to be meagre job creation and extreme fragility, with the real possibility of a slump back into recession. With each new disappointing statistical report, the dream that we can expect a rapid return to "business as usual" – high consumer borrowing, booming financial services and rampant property speculation – loses credibility. Politicians of all parties would be wise to tailor their economic policies and their political messages to fit this sombre economic reality.

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