Cable positions himself as the man for a Lib Dem-Labour coalition

Forecasting a hung parliament at the next election, the Business Secretary looked to life after the Tories.

Vince Cable used his speech to the Lib Dem conference to present himself as a free radical, a man who was prepared to work with the Tories and Labour when they were right and to criticise them when they were wrong. He restated the original rationale for the coalition - to provide national government at a time of "permanent crisis" - but added that he made no apology for maintaining "good communications with politicians across the spectrum", before motioning as if he had just received a text, "Please Ed, not now, this is not the time". Cable's political motives became clear at the end of the speech, when he suggested that the most likely outcome of the next election was another hung parliament (the British people, he said, would not want to "entrust their future to any one party"). If you want someone who can lead the Lib Dems into coalition with Labour, he implied, I'm the man for the job; messrs Miliband and Balls already having ruled out working with Nick Clegg.

Throughout the speech, the Business Secretary was careful to combine attacks on both parties with references to those areas where they could work together. So he derided the Tory "headbangers" who wanted a "hire-and-fire culture" and the "backwoodsmen" who opposed a mansion tax, but offered a strong endorsement of George Osborne's deficit reduction plan and declared that he had "considerable personal sympathy" for the Chancellor, who was attacked both for "borrowing too much" and "borrowing too little". In a notable jibe at Andrew Mitchell's expense, which was left out of the original text, he also joked that he was a "mere pleb". As for Labour, he mocked Ed Balls's plan to eliminate the deficit over seven years, rather than the coaliton's six ("wow!"), but nodded to Ed Miliband's agenda when he called for a culture of "responsible capitalism".

Cable, who has openly declared that he is prepared to stand for the Lib Dem leadership, was astutue enough to avoid anything resembling disloyalty to Nick Clegg, praising the Deputy PM early on for proving that "coalitions work". But he also deftly positioned himself as a social liberal ("this is no time for the state to be stepping back"), who, unlike Clegg, continued to command respect across the centre-left. While conservative columnists write paeans of praise to the Lib Dem leader (see Boris Johnson's piece in today's Daily Telegraph), Cable reminded activists of a Telegraph poll showing that he was the cabinet minister who Tory activists most wanted to evict from the government. The message to the party's base - "I'm one of you" - could not have been clearer.

Vince Cable gives his speech to the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

"The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity," declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" - a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain - but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been europhile and eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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