With hindsight, Cable's deficit reduction plan looks better than Osborne's

Osborne's Plan A required the Chancellor to be lucky - and this Chancellor has not been lucky.

This year I am conducting a little experiment. I have two sealed envelopes in my office drawer. In one is a set of economic predictions made by astrologers at the start of the year; in the other a set of similar predictions made by ordinary journalists with no economic background. At the end of the year I intend to compare such random guessing with heavyweight economic soothsayers such as the Office of Budget Responsibility, the Bank of England, OECD, IFS and any economic think tank bold enough to make medium-term economic predictions on the nation's growth, employment, inflation, and so forth.

My money frankly is on the astrologers. The recent record of medium-term economic forecasting is lamentable - even if we ignore the unpredicted banking crash. What success we have seen amounts to little more than the suggestion that things will move in the direction they seem to be moving.

Now, I do not know if George Osborne trusted too much the entrail examining of economic experts, some of whom are now saying that he shouldn't have done exactly what they hitherto urged him to do. Nor can we be as sure as Ed Balls that the government went "too far, too fast" - particularly as Ed never got as far as telling anyone "how far or how fast" a government should go.

What we all can agree on, though, is that things are not going to plan. Yes, jobs are being created in the private sector, unemployment is not moving upwards, the deficit is down, our export markets are engaging with the emerging economies, inflation is low and our credit good.

However, friend and foe alike acknowledge that the plan hinges on economic growth and there's little positive news yet on that.

I write this as someone who has voted in Parliament for every bit of the Chancellor's strategy and bought into its broad objectives. Government MPs cannot meaningfully adopt an a la carte approach to Budgets. I did not know if it would achieve all its major objectives but I certainly did not know it would not. I do not claim to know how crucial events in the EU have been in derailing that strategy.

What I entirely reasonably claim is that George's plan conceived before the 2010 election and implemented after it was bolder and potentially riskier than that advocated by Vince Cable and the Lib Dem Treasury team. Retrospectively and with all benefits of hindsight, slowing a little the pace of deficit of reduction to better protect economically-useful capital expenditure as suggested by Vince looks as though it might have been a better bet.

It is not that Plan A could not have worked or that the sage of Twickenham was necessarily right. It required though a number of other things to go right or not go badly wrong - for the Chancellor to be lucky - and this Chancellor has not been lucky.

It probably did not help that in act of misguided hubris the Regional Development Agencies were given their marching orders from day one - particularly as the replacement Local Enterprise Partnerships have struggled either to find their feet or get real money flowing through the system. RDAs stood in need of reform but the incoming government's penchant for "radical restructuring" has led in more than one area to a lot of time being wasted doing just that.

One cannot help thinking that much of this is a poisonous consequence of the tribalism that bedevils British politics whereby incoming governments are expected to behave like the Taliban blowing up Buddhas. One hoped that coalition could offset this tendency.

That’s why the reasoned tone as much as much as the substance of Alistair Darling's intervention last week matters. Frankly positioned as George Osborne is between supply-side zealots who see manic deregulation as a cure-all and irritating post match analysis from the Lib Dem benches, anything that makes non-partisan discussion and decision-making easier must be welcome.

For regardless of what party we belong to or what sector of the economy we work in, it is becoming painfully clear that facile and easy solutions to our economic plight are not available and for better or worse - we are all in this together.

John Pugh is the Lib Dem MP for Southport

George Osborne hasn't had any luck. Photograph: Getty Images

John Pugh is the Lib Dem MP for Southport.

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.