Clegg’s new tone on the economy

The coalition needs to work on a climb down.

It’s not every day you open the paper to read about a cabinet minister – one who isn’t the Chancellor - holding forth about the ‘instruction’ that has been given to the Treasury on a key aspect of economic policy. Nor we should we suppose that Nick Clegg elected to give the interview to the FT only to use this line due to a slip of the tongue.  It tells us something.

The specifics are about whether the Treasury should use its ‘balance sheet’ to enable a ‘massive’ increase in infrastructure spending (on housing and transport).  The timing reflects the wider context. The last few weeks have been unkind for the Coalition’s favoured economic narrative. The return of recession has been the key event but hardly the only one. The election of President Hollande, the continued euro-zone crisis, President Obama regularly appearing on our TV screens talking about jobs and growth, a Labour reshuffle that was seen to help unify different shades of economic opinion, and now the IMF saying (once again) that further action may be required, including fiscal stimulus, if the economy doesn’t pick up – all these have unsettled the Coalition.   

As a result the economic and political mood has, for now at least, tilted away from the Coalition on the economy. Pundits who were once scathing about any deviation from the coalition’s economic strategy are now straining to see nuance and be open minded.  Of course, we should never underestimate the fickleness of the commentariat – sentiment could easily shift back again – but the Coalition won’t be relaxed about how this is currently playing out.

One reason for their concern is that they feel very dug in. The stringency and tone of the economic argument made since 2010 on fiscal consolidation didn’t leave rhetorical space for a graceful transition to a different tack if the economy didn’t recover as hoped. That was a very deliberate choice. And given the enormous levels of uncertainly about our economic prospects it was always a foolhardy one.  

Which brings us back to Nick Clegg’s remarks. They are a sign of the resulting strain. Based on the FT report it’s not exactly obvious what the instructions given to the Treasury are, though the point is clearly designed to signal that infrastructure investment will be increased as part of a new emphasis on growth, and that the state can facilitate this without further increasing borrowing (let’s leave to one side the reality that capital investment is actually being slashed). Nor is it immediately obvious why the government thinks that borrowing at rock-bottom interest rates will lead to economic Armageddon yet piling new risks on the state balance sheet is a shiny new idea fit for our times.

Whatever the substance, the way this new tone on the economy has materialised also raises questions.  To date, the rules of exchange for the Coalition have been clear: the parties can differentiate on all manner of issues but when it comes to overall macroeconomic and fiscal policy they have to be seamless. It’s the glue that binds. True, Clegg emphasised that the new edict for the Treasury was agreed by Cameron, so it would be wrong to overstate this, but any perception of disagreement between the coalition parties on core economic strategy would be poison for them.  

Economically, it is to be hoped that there will be a shift in strategy – whatever label they choose to put on it – and others have set out compelling ideas for the form this could take.  Politically, the coalition urgently needs to work out exactly how it wants to evolve its economic narrative in the light of shifting events and then stick firmly to this script. And it might be a good idea if the Chancellor led the way.

Photograph: Getty Images

Gavin Kelly is a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.