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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

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