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.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.