Cable warns of trouble ahead

Business Secretary refuses to rule out possibility of a double-dip recession.

A year on from the Spending Review, the coalition's soothsayer has emerged to offer another gloomy economic prognosis. Asked by ITV News whether he could promise that there wouldn't be a double-dip recession, Vince Cable replied: "I can't do that. We know conditions are very difficult but the government is doing the best it can to protect people." The Business Secretary spoke only of the "possibility" (hastily adding, "well indeed the certainty") that the coalition would turn things round.

It's not the first time that Cable has warned of a double-dip. In an interview with the Guardian's Decca Aitkenhead last August, he noted that the government's forecasts put the risk of a double-dip "at something like one in four, one in five" but he would only say "well below 50-50" (a figure that sounded rather higher than one in five). Then there was his interview with NS editor Jason Cowley, in which he spoke of the danger of another "financial bomb" going off.

As ever, there is something admirable about the Business Secretary's economic realism. But it prompts the question: what is he going to do about it? In some ways, the government has already adopted a plan B in the form of credit easing, accelerated deregulation and more QE by the Bank of England (described by George Osborne in 2009 as "the last resort of desperate governments when all other policies have failed"). The question remains whether it will change course again by temporarily slowing the cuts or offering further fiscal stimulus (a plan C, if you like). For now, there is no sign of that. But Osborne's Damascene conversion to quantitative easing is a reminder of how even this most stubborn of Chancellors can change his mind.

Announcing a second round of QE earlier this month, Bank of England governor Mervyn King remarked "When the world changes, we change our policy response." Cable's pessimism will only increase the pressure on Osborne to change his.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.