10 Questions for Vince Cable, post-Question Time

An open letter to the Business Secretary following our debate on BBC1.

Dear Vince,

Nice to see you last night in Liverpool. I just got home!

You've had a great week, with a strong speech to your party members at the Lib Dem conference followed by a fluent performance on Question Time. (You were also, I hear, a big draw at the NS fringe on "progressive austerity" in Liverpool on Monday.)

But QT is just too short for me. Sixty minutes? Call me greedy, but I wanted more time to continue our debate and discussion on the economy. If we'd had longer, and it'd just been you and me, here are the questions I'd like you to have answered for me:

1) You have referred to "slashing now" as "an act of economic masochism" (13 March 2010) and have said that "cutting too soon and pushing the economy back into recession will make the deficit worse, as tax receipts fall and benefit payments rise" (24 April 2010), so how can you now claim that your opponents are "deficit deniers" for making precisely the same case as you made only months ago?

2) You claimed last night on television that we were facing a financial "emergency" and that the deficit had to be confronted and cut down. But in your book, The Storm, you wrote that UK debt is "moderate in comparison with those of other countries" (p25) and that budget deficits of 13 or 14 per cent in the US and the UK were "not a great cause for alarm" (p144). How do you explain the disconnect?

3) You referred in your conference speech to the "spivs" and "gamblers" in the City, and denounced bankers' bonuses on Question Time, but bank shares rallied after your coalition's "emergency Budget" in June and Deutsche Bank, for example, described the Budget as a "good outcome for banks". Again, how do you explain the disconnect?

4) Nick Clegg said five days before the general election: "My eight-year-old ought to be able to work this out -- you shouldn't start slamming on the brakes when the economy is barely growing." How is it that eight-year-old Antonio Clegg has a greater grasp of economic theory, and of the lessons of economic history, than you, Clegg or Danny Alexander?

5) Do the latest figures from the Republic of Ireland worry you? Make you doubt your support for immediate and widespread "austerity"?

6) How about the news from the eurozone?

7) You have said that John Maynard Keynes is your hero, but isn't Keynes turning in his grave right now? Why is it that all the leading Keynesian economists (Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, David Blanchflower, Robert Skidelsky, etc) are so opposed to your coalition's cuts?

8) Can you tell us when exactly you switched your position on cuts? The date and time, please?

9) In the green room before the programme was recorded, you and I discussed how much Liverpool had changed and progressed in recent years. So do you agree or disagree with the Lib Dem leader of Liverpool City Council, Warren Bradley, when he says that northern cities like his own "could be set back ten or 20 years" by the impact of your coalition's cuts?

10) You condemned monopolies and "rigged markets" in your conference speech. Will you promise to launch a review, on public-interest grounds, of Rupert Murdoch's bid to take full control of BSkyB? Or will you have to check with Andy Coulson first?

I hope you had a safe journey back to London.

Regards,

Mehdi

 

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.