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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.