Clegg slaps down Cable on borrowing

Deputy PM comes to Cameron's aid and warns that borrowing for growth would risk a spike in interest rates.

Downing Street has responded to Vince Cable's dramatic intervention in the New Statesman by seeking to paint the Business Secretary as a lone maverick and Nick Clegg has just come to their aid. On his phone-in show on LBC this morning, the Deputy PM said of Cable's call for the government to borrow for growth: 

If you do decide to say: 'to hell with it, let's borrow £40bn – £20bn' –huge amounts of money – because there is no point doing it unless you do it on a big scale – there are risks of course, and I know Vince acknowledges it, you unwittingly make it more difficult for everyone else because interest rates might then go up.

He added: "The question is not whether capital investment is a good thing – everyone in the coalition agrees that – but how do you pay for it? This is where the balance of judgment is; you need to balance the risk."

While Cable argues that the risks of borrowing to invest are now outweighed by the risks of not doing so, Clegg has stuck firmly to the Cameron-Osborne line that deficit-financed stimulus would cause a spike in interest rates. 

Clegg's intervention is helpful for Labour as well as the Tories. Team Balls responded to Cable's essay by similarly portraying the Business Secretary as an isolated figure. "His words today read like they have been written by a Secretary of State who despite being in office, is not in power," said shadow financial secretary Chris Leslie. Clegg's rebuke to Cable means Balls and Miliband can continue to argue that only Labour is offering a genuine plan B. 

Nick Clegg speaks at last year's 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.