Belfast Telegraph

Economy is on the critical list, so be careful with this patient

By David Prosser

There's a curious feeling of the phoney war about the Government's austerity drive. Beyond the inevitable softening-up exercises and a couple of early bombs dropped in the "emergency" Budget, the really nasty stuff has yet to really hit home.

Hit it will have to.

Yesterday the International Monetary Fund made it plain that budget deficits around the world have to be tackled, Britain's included.

But there is another side to the coin: economic growth and the risks that cuts pose to a recovery that still looks fragile despite the recent positive-looking GDP numbers (at least on this side of the Atlantic).

Anyone needing evidence of that only needed to cast an eye over the PMI data for Britain yesterday, which hinted at a manufacturing slowdown.

One set of figures does not make for a trend, far from it. But even if the economy's off life support, it remains in intensive care, condition critical.

What it all underlined was the delicacy with which the Chancellor will have to proceed.

In many quarters the current Government is being praised. And words like radical, determined, tough, tend to get politicians puffing out their chests.

Peter Hargreaves was at it yesterday, saying the Coalition could be the "best Government ever", at least if it takes the axe to the public sector. Of course the co-founder of the broker Hargreaves Lansdown has enough money not to have much use for the public services he wants to see slashed. And the man with whom he set up his (admittedly) phenomenally successful business, Stephen Lansdown, has departed for offshore climes to protect his income from the other side of balancing public-sector finances: tax.

So it is to be hoped that Mr Osborne doesn't listen too hard.

What the IMF also highlighted were the dangers of seeking a "quick fix" to the nation's embattled finances.

There has been some disturbing evidence that Mr Osborne has been seeking just that. And perhaps the most risky of his measures could prove to be on the taxing side of the coin.

It is true that unless they feel their livelihoods - and mortgages - are at risk, Britons will happily shop until they drop. The retailers' forthcoming "golden" quarter of trading could shine particularly brightly as awareness of the forthcoming VAT rise grows, no doubt aided and abetted by a string of "beat the taxman" promotions coming to a high street near you.

This could keep the economy trundling along nicely until the new year, when the chill won't just come from the weather.