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 adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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