Cameron tries to steady the ship after Cable fires a rocket

After the Business Secretary's dramatic suggestion that the government should borrow for growth, the PM will denounce those who would "plunge us back into the abyss".

Vince Cable's dramatic suggestion in his New Statesman essay that the government should borrow for growth has raised the stakes for David Cameron's speech on the economy today. The central message of the Prime Minister's address in Keighley will be the diameterical opposite of Cable's: there must be no change of course; plan A is here to stay. 

Cameron will say: 

The very moment when we're just getting some signs that we can turn our economy round and make our country a success is the very moment to hold firm to the path we have set.

And yes the path ahead is tough but be in no doubt, the decisions we make now will set the course of our economic future for years to come.

And while some would falter and plunge us back into the abyss we will stick to the course.

Contrast that with Cable's argument that the government should consider whether to "borrow more" in order to fund "greatly expanded" capital spending.

The more controversial question is whether the government should not switch but should borrow more, at current very low interest rates, in order to finance more capital spending: building of schools and colleges; small road and rail projects; more prudential borrowing by councils for house building. This last is crucial to reviving an area which led economic recovery in the 1930s but is now severely depressed.

Such a programme would inject demand into the weakest sector of our economy – construction – and, at one remove, the manufacturing supply chain [cement, steel]. It would target two significant bottlenecks to growth: infrastructure and housing.

This, he wrote, would not undermine George Osborne's defining objective of eliminating the current structural deficit (which excludes capital spending) and may even assist it "by reviving growth". In other words, higher borrowing and deficit reduction can go hand-in-hand (call it Keynesianism). It is precisely this argument, long made by Ed Balls, that Cameron and Osborne have exerted so much political energy in rebutting. Yet here is a member of the cabinet echoing Labour's logic. 

Doorstepped by the BBC this morning, Cable sought to play down his intervention. "We just need to pursue what I’ve often called Plan A+," he said. "That’s financial discipline and getting down the deficit, and at the same time pursuing growth. That’s what we’re doing and will continue to do." But, however much he seeks to deny it, the suggestion that the government can and should borrow to invest is a significant advance on his previous call for higher capital spending (so far funded by greater cuts in current spending). 

Downing Street (which signed off on the article) has responded by seeking to paint the Business Secretary as a lone maverick, who lacks even the support of his Lib Dem colleagues. No. 10 is aided in this task by Labour, which welcomed Cable's piece as evidence that he "may at last be seeing sense" but added that his words "read like they have been written by a Secretary of State who despite being in office, is not in power." The Business Secretary, it said, "needs to start winning the argument round the Cabinet table". 

The chances of that look slim. With the general election just two years away, Cameron and Osborne believe there is little to be gained from changing course now. Indeed, they regard their commitment to deficit reduction (albeit more in theory than practice; Osborne is set to borrow more in five years than Labour did in 13) as the Tories' strongest political suit. The electorate continues to regard the government's austerity measures as a necessary corrective to years of profligacy by Labour and wearily accepts Osborne's claim that there is no "magic wand". While the Chancellor's deficit reduction plan has stalled (borrowing so far this year is higher than last year), Osborne believes this could yet work to the Tories' advantage. If the next election is again fought over austerity, his hope is that voters will put their faith in the original axeman. 

But Cable's heretical suggestion that the government should "borrow more" will make it harder for Cameron to argue that "there is no alternative". If the economy fails to show signs of improvement, or even falls into a third recession, the Business Secretary may soon become a less isolated figure. 

Business Secretary Vince Cable sits with David Cameron in 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit