I worry that my Burlington Bertie life in London’s West End offers a misleading picture of the real economy. Yes, boutiques and brasseries are busy, but what’s it like in outer boroughs and distant provinces?
To take a single morning’s headlines, on the plus side there’s upbeat trading news from ABF, the grocery and Primark discount clothing retailer, which reaches consumers everywhere; and a prediction that energy prices will fall 16 per cent by April. On the negative, warnings that ‘more than 47,000 companies are on the brink of collapse’ (from insolvency specialists Begbies Traynor); and that world trade faces a second wave of Red Sea disruption even if Houthi attacks stop (from the shipping giant Hapag-Lloyd).
So here’s a balanced view: with inflation falling, interest rates at peak, wages generally up and taxes likely to come down, the consumer economy is improving, but not by much; the mildest shock could set it back. In search of confirmation I asked my cleaning lady, who lives in east London, whether she sees things getting better or worse.
‘Pluto has moved into Aquarius,’ she answered solemnly, ‘and that hasn’t happened since the French Revolution.’ I rush to Google: ‘Pluto… the planet of death and rebirth… is often associated with deep, transformative change.’ Deeper than the rise of Keir Starmer and the return of Donald Trump? Crikey. I see no signs in Piccadilly and the Strand, but we’d all be wise to brace for turbulence ahead.
Steel’s bitter end
Transformative trouble has hit Port Talbot, where 2,800 job losses could follow Tata Steel’s decision to close its last two coal-fired blast furnaces and replace them with electric arc furnaces that will reprocess scrap steel. The change will reduce the UK’s carbon footprint but leave us more dependent than ever on imports, with no capacity to make primary steel from iron ore.