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.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

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