Autumn Statement: Is Britain In Danger Of Losing Its AAA Credit Rating?

Lost beneath George Osborne's Autumn Statement on Wednesday was the news that Britain's AAA credit rating could be in jeopardy as the economy slips further away from the debt and deficit targets set by the Chancellor.

The UK's credit rating - which affects the country's relationship with central banks and pension funds and, in theory, serves as a general marker of the country's ability to deal with its debt and repay it - could fall by 2013.

The news comes as the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), set up by Osborne, has judged that the UK will miss the Chancellor's debt targets for 2016.

The BBC's Robert Peston tweeted on Wednesday that the UK could lose its credit rating by the end of the year, with investors telling him it was "impossible to salvage".

A loss of the AAA credit rating would be a political setback for Osborne

Peston was told by the chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, that losing the rating would not be a "be all and end all" for the British economy.

However, a rating loss would be deeply embarrassing for the Tories, who pledged in their 2010 election manifesto to "safeguard" the UK's rating.

Alexander has previously downplayed the importance of the credit rating, saying in August that the rating was not the "be-all and end-all", a direct contradiction of Osborne, who has long treasured the credit rating as a sign of Britain's fiscal health.

Danny Alexander has downplayed the importance of the credit rating

In fact, in July, Osborne hailed Britain's AAA rating as "a reminder that despite the economic problems we face, the world has confidence that we are dealing with them".

But in November, the credit agency Moody's warned Osborne that if the UK were to fall into recession again, the AAA rating could be affected. (The OBR, incidentally, is predicting negative growth in the fourth quarter of 2012.)

Relegation from the premier league of AAA-rated countries would drop the UK to the second-tier AA group, alongside countries such as France, China and the USA. It might not cause much economic harm - US borrowing costs are at historic lows despite its July 2011 downgrade - but, politically, it would an immense amount of damage to the chancellor's reputation.

On Wednesday, both Ladbrokes and William Hill were offering odds on a rating drop - both offering 5/4 odds that the UK's rating would slip before the 2013 Budget.