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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle