The real winners of the Vince Cable debacle

Yep, the bankers!

I took part in a slightly bizarre but fun Today programme discussion this morning about whether or not we have a "Maoist" government. You may remember the remarks by the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, who told two undercover Telegraph journalists:

There is a lot of things happening. There is a kind of Maoist revolution happening in a lot of areas like the health service, local government, reform, all this kind of stuff, which is in danger of getting out of . . . We are trying to do too many things, actually.

He was also, we assume, one of the key cabinet sources for Andrew Rawnsley's column in the Obs last weekend:

I have actually heard more than one member of the cabinet explicitly refer to the government as "Maoist".

In fact, the truth is that we political journalists have short memories. Despite all the song and dance about Maoism, which prompted this morning's Today programme chat on Radio 4 (involving not just me, but the noted China and Chairman Mao specialist Jonathan Fenby) and led to the FT's "Mao rating" scheme, Cable actually used the Maoist tag in public more than a month ago.

From the Guardian, 12 November:

The abolition of regional development agencies by the coalition was a "little Maoist and chaotic", Business Secretary Vince Cable told a gathering in Birmingham last night.

Hmm.

Cable has a rather curious relationship with communist language, analogies and labels. As the politics lecturer Ed Rooksby points out over at Comment Is Free:

What is it about Vince Cable and communism? Barely a month seems to go by without Cable comparing others, or being compared himself, to something or someone related to it. In September, the Liberal Democrat minister was accused (implausibly) of being some sort of quasi-Marxist after making some mildly critical remarks about capitalism in a speech. In 2007, Cable made his memorable quip about Gordon Brown having undergone a "remarkable transformation . . . from Stalin to Mr Bean". While having his own Mr Bean moment, revealed this week, Cable was at it again. This time it was Mao.

Rooksby makes an important if provocative point at the end of his piece on Cable, the coalition and Chairman Mao. Like the Maoist government in China, he writes:

. . . this is, in an important sense, a class-struggle government – one acting consciously and directly on behalf of the rich. The role performed by the government in conditions of economic crisis is, all too often, to shift the costs of that crisis on to the poor and least well-off. The last government bailed out a banking system on the verge of collapse. Now this one is demanding that the rest of us pay for it, and is setting about that task with great enthusiasm.

You might roll your eyes at the analogy, but which group of people, aside from the bosses and shareholders of Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp, will be rubbing their hands in glee this week at the sight of Cable's very public and humiliating defenestration? Yep, you guessed it, the bankers.

Here's the well-informed James Chapman writing in the Daily Mail:

The prospect of a crackdown on a £7bn bonus windfall for bankers is receding as a result of Vince Cable's weakened position in the cabinet.

The Liberal Democrat Business Secretary had been leading demands for tough action as banks prepare to make a bumper round of payments.

Mr Cable's allies have suggested Britain should follow Ireland's lead and block bonuses at institutions part-owned by the taxpayer, such as the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Cable built his reputation, in opposition, as the hammer of the bankers; in government for the first time in his life, he had the opportunity to help restrain the excesses, greed and irresponsible behaviour of our bailed-out financial elites. But no more. He is a diminished figure, lacking clout and credibility. George Osborne will be the man doing the deals with the bank bosses on behalf of the coalition and, as Cable admitted to the Telegraph duo:

We have a big argument going on about tax [on the bankers] and that is party political, because I am arguing with Nick Clegg for a very tough approach and our Conservative friends don't want to do that.

Osborne and his City allies might argue, in response, that the Treasury has already announced a levy on banks that will raise £2.5bn a year. But as the Labour MP Chuka Umunna, a member of the Treasury select committee, pointed out the day after the Chancellor's Spending Review on 20 October:

The government has opted to apply the levy over and above a £20bn allowance rather than using a threshold. Under a threshold, any bank with total liabilities of more than £20bn would have been taxed on all their profits, while under the plans announced today all banks regardless of their size will not be subject to the levy on their first £20bn of taxable liabilities.

A stipulation was included in today's plans that the levy will not apply to firms where 50 per cent or more of activity is defined as "non-financial". Because investment banks often have extensive and varied operations, this could allow firms to dodge the tax.

Figures obtained by Umunna through a parliamentary question in July show that the government only hopes to raise £1.15bn from the levy in 2011-2012 and £8.37bn in total between 2011-2012 and 2014-2015 – less than half the government's total cuts to welfare spending of £18bn announced in the Spending Review. As Rooksby concluded in his CiF piece:

The last government bailed out a banking system on the verge of collapse. Now this one is demanding that the rest of us pay for it . . .

Merry Christmas!

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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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.