Danny Alexander: we won't spend a penny more

Uneasy cabinet minister denies plans for an extra £5bn of capital spending.

With everyone from George Osborne downwards now acknowledging that growth this year will be weaker-than-expected, an argument has restarted in government about how best to stimulate the economy. Last night, the BBC's Nick Robinson reported that some cabinet ministers were agitating for an extra £5bn in capital spending, to be channelled towards the nation's roads, rail and broadband internet.

Naturally, Robinson didn't name names, but I draw your attention to comments made by Chris Huhne at a fringe event at the Lib Dem conference on Monday night. "Remember ... the target that we have is the structural current balance," the Energy Secretary said. "It is current not capital spending. That is an important distinction." In other words, the government could ramp up capital spending without breaching its fiscal mandate: to eliminate the structural deficit (the part of the deficit that remains even once when the economy has returned to normal growth) and to ensure a falling debt-to-GDP ratio by the end of the parliament. Huhne has since insisted that he doesn't recognise the £5bn figure and that there is "no such plan". As the great Claud Cockburn once quipped, "never believe anything until has been officially denied".

Whoever the culprit was (and Vince Cable uttered the s-word - stimulus - several times in his speech), they were swiftly squashed by the Treasury. "We have our spending plans and we are sticking to them," a spokesman said.

Appearing on the Today programme this morning, an uneasy sounding Danny Alexander stuck to the script. The government would "strain every sinew" to promote growth but it would not spend a penny more then the limits set out in the Spending Review. "We have set out plans on capital spending, we're going to stick to those plans across the board on spending," the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said. He added: "I just don't recognise the numbers involved or the process as described."

It was Chris Huhne who previously suggested that the cuts could be scaled back in the event of a serious downturn, and who declared that he was not "lashed to the mast" of deficit reduction. But Alexander certainly is. As growth continues to fall and unemployment continues to rise, this is one argument that will not go away.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.