Revealed: where Vince Cable got his RBS plan from

The problem is, he isn't really following it to the letter.

Blogger Left Outside thought that the proposals by what the FT called "cabinet ministers" – "it's Vince Cable, everyone knows it's Vince!" – to fully nationalise RBS in order to be able to force it to start lending serious amounts of money to small and medium enterprisise sounded familiar. So they dug around the archives and found Giles Wilkes' paper for Orange Book Lib Dem think-tank Centre Forum from 2010, Credit where it's due: making QE work for the real economy.

What Vince is suggesting is basically creating an independent, government owned bank to finally start an effective policy of credit easing. Although Osborne has used the phrase before, he has been hamstrung by the desire not to do it directly, and the carrot-and-stick approach he has taken up doesn't seem to be convincing the banks to do it themselves.

Wilkes' overview of his paper laid out the plan:

"In deploying quantitative easing, the Bank may have forestalled a total collapse in our financial system. But QE has been less successful at stimulating the real economy. Now it needs reform if it is to restore the confidence needed for sustained growth. Money that is subsidizing the borrowing costs of the state should instead be helping smaller businesses and households.

"The Bank should start by targeting a high level of nominal growth until the economy is performing at its potential. This will reassure the private sector that liquidity won’t dry up in the near future, and so encourage more investment now. The second step should be for ‘credit easing’ to replace ‘quantitative easing’. The Bank’s independence of action on traditional monetary matters should be respected. But by putting taxpayer’s money at risk, QE is as much fiscal as monetary policy. So it is quite right for the government to direct the Bank to deploy the funds in the private economy, which is where it is really needed. For example, the money could help guarantee loans to small companies, or alleviate the dearth of financing for long-term infrastructure.

"With incomes stagnating and huge spending cuts in prospect, the Bank is right to ignore scare stories about spiralling inflation. It should even consider expanding the programme if the economy stays weak. What it should not do, however, is increase the size of QE without changing the way it works. It is time that politicians realised that QE is their business, and that failure to make it work properly will be their failure."

Notice anything strange, though? Vince seems to have jumped straight to step two in Wilkes' plan, skipping entirely the rather cruical first step.

Nominal growth targeting involves switching the Bank's aim from keeping inflation within 1 percentage point of 2 per cent inflation to attempting to keep nominal growth at certain level (usually around 4-6 per cent). The cruicial difference between the two being that it would allow the bank, in times of crisis (like now!) to allow higher inflation.

This matters for Cable's plan because the immediate impact of increasing the number of loans to SMEs would likely be a - temporary - burst of inflation. As companies borrow to expand production, all sorts of macroeconomic effects kick in. Young workers gain employment and move out of their parents houses (increasing the cost of housing), more people drive to work (increasing the cost of fuel), businesses invest in machinery and equipment (increasing the cost of those) and so on. This inflation would be temporary, because eventually the bottlenecks in those industries would be expanded, but it would still be felt.

Yet with the bank's mandate as it is now, it would have to respond to that inflation spike by tightening monetary policy. Interest rates go up, lending gets more expensive, and everything good is bad again. We'll see if that is how it actually plays out. Of course, the political game is, as ever, where the real action lies.

Business Secretary Vince Cable addresses employees at the BMW MINI plant in Oxford. 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 the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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