Our problem is no longer unwillingness to spend on infrastructure, it's inability

Outsourcing government policy since 2010

As my colleague George Eaton wrote this morning, the political top-line from the government's announcement of a £50bn infrastructure program is that it signals a gruff acceptance of Keynesian economics:

The delusion that the coalition's spending cuts would increase consumer confidence and produce a self-sustaining private-sector-led recovery has been abandoned after Osborne's "expansionary fiscal contraction" turned out to be, well, contractionary.

But getting wonkish about it, there is something interesting buried in all this about how the government has chosen to execute this volte-face. Rather than simply borrow the money – at interest rates so low that it would basically be paid to do so – it has announced that it will guarantee the private loans of any company which fulfils certain requirements.

Doubtless part of the reason is political. This way, the government can confidently state that they aren't adding anything to the deficit, even though this way of borrowing is functionally identical to doing it the standard, on-the-books way. But part of it will be because infrastructure investment is really hard.

According to the FT:

To qualify for the new guarantees, projects must be ready to start in the 12 months from the offer being made and Treasury officials say they will be monitored to ensure they would not have gone ahead in any case.

The thing is, there just aren't that many shovel-ready projects simply lying around the place, and certainly not big flashy ones. Although the government is proclaiming that the Thames tunnel, the Mersey Gateway toll bridge and the A14 road widening in Cambridge could all be helped with the money, it's usually more mundane things which are the easiest use of infrastructure spending. Forget high-speed rail and airport islands, and focus on sewers and road resurfacing.

Unfortunately, its relatively tricky to spend £50bn on sewers in a year. Thames Water is replacing all the Victorian Water mains in London, but its taking 5 years and costing £5bn. To do it any faster would risk chaos in the streets. And noteably, they had already started that program without the governments money. That's going to be true of a lot of the low-level infrastructure investments that would otherwise be ripe for targeted spending.

So the government needs ideas. And what better way to get them than to offload the generating of them to the private sector? It's no longer just a government outsourcing based on ideology. It's now a government outsourcing because it has literally no idea how to enact policy it desperately wants to.

Osborne knows what it means to be Keynesian, but doesn't know how to do it. If you think you do, why not bid for his money?

The Thames tunnel, one of the proposed uses of the infrastructure money. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.