Keynes and the coalition: the great economic debate

Vince Cable’s claim that Keynes would have backed the coalition has enabled a more honest debate.

Vince Cable's attempt to reclaim Keynes for the coalition is the subject of both a Guardian editorial and Larry Elliott's economics column today. In his essay (which you can read in the current issue of the NS), Cable argues that the Master would have sided with the coalition, not Labour, on the critical question of deficit reduction.

Cable, as Elliott notes, is right to demolish the myth that Keynes believed governments should run deficits as a matter of course. Rather, he argued that governments should run surpluses in times of plenty in order to allow them to increase spending in times of want. As he succinctly put it: "The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury."

Keynes would not have approved of the 2-3 per cent structural deficit with which Labour entered the crisis, a fact the left should not feel uncomfortable about. It was New Labour's failure to make the honest case for higher taxation that meant spending first galloped ahead of revenue. There is a left-wing, as well as a right-wing, critique of excessive deficit spending. (None of which should be used to obscure the fact that the record deficit was caused largely by a collapse in tax receipts and higher welfare spending due to increased unemployment.)

But in other areas, most notably employment, Cable's Keynesian defence of the coalition's austerity drive looks shakier. Were he alive today, Keynes's principal concern would be the effect on demand of high unemployment (2.5 million at the last count).

As Elliott writes:

[W]ould Keynes really be standing shoulder to shoulder with Cable and Osborne if he were alive today? More likely he would say that Britain has an unemployment problem rather than a deficit problem; that the impact of monetary policy is impaired by the problems of the banks; that the squeeze on consumer spending from tax increases and spending cuts will choke off private investment; and that the lesson of the US in the 1930s is that premature efforts at balancing the budget risk a double-dip recession.

Yet the merit of Cable's essay, as the Guardian's editorial notes, is that it elevates debate above the cynical falsehoods and clichés ("maxing out the nation's credit card") employed by David Cameron and George Osborne. The Business Secretary's piece is the only serious intellectual contribution any cabinet minister has made to economic discussion.

Keynes's biographer Robert Skidelsky and David Blanchflower will respond to Cable's essay (itself a response to Skidelsky's original critique of the coalition's fiscal retrenchment) in the next issue of the NS.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

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