Exclusive: Vince Cable calls on Osborne to change direction

Business Secretary argues in the New Statesman for "greatly expanded" capital spending and suggests that the Chancellor should borrow for growth.

In recent months, as the economy has continued to shrink and as borrowing has continued to rise, Vince Cable has become increasingly convinced of the need for a change of economic policy. With the Budget now just two weeks away, the Business Secretary has made his boldest intervention yet. In a 3,800 word essay for the New Statesman, Cable calls for "greatly expanded" capital spending and suggests that any increase should be funded through borrowing, not greater cuts elsewhere.

Ahead of a speech by David Cameron on the economy tomorrow, in which the Prime Minister will defend the government's strategy, he warns that Osborne's cuts to capital spending have had "economic consequences" and that the £5bn increase in last year's Autumn Statement was too "modest" to have any major effect. He adds: "one obvious question is why capital investment cannot now be greatly expanded. Pessimists say that government is incapable of mobilising capital investment quickly. But that is absurd: only five years ago the government was managing to build infrastructure, schools and hospitals at a level £20bn or more in 2009/10 than last year."

Cable then takes a significant step towards Labour's position by implying that the government should now borrow to invest.

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.

While maintaining that the coalition was right to adopt an aggressive deficit reduction plan in June 2010, he suggests that the "balance of risks" may have changed. 

When the government was formed it was in the context of febrile markets and worries about sovereign risk, at that stage in Greece but with the potential for contagion. As the country arguably most damaged by the banking crisis and with the largest fiscal deficit in the G20 there were good reasons to worry that the UK could lose the confidence of creditors without a credible plan for deficit reduction including an early demonstration of commitment. The main international agencies (the IMF, European Commission and OECD) and business groups stated that it judged the balance of risks correctly.

Almost three years later the question is whether the balance of risks has changed. 

He points to IMF research showing that the risk of losing market confidence as a result of higher borrowing may now be outweighed, in his words, by "the risk of public finances deteriorating as a consequence of continued lack of growth."

Osborne has consistently rejected calls to loosen fiscal policy but Cable argues that borrowing for growth "would not undermine the central objective of reducing the structural deficit" and may even assist it "by reviving growth". He notes that Britain's long-term debt maturity means it suffers "less from the risks of a debt spiral where refinancing maturing debt rapidly becomes impossible" and argues that "the effect on our fiscal situation of higher interest rates is in fact nowhere near as bad as having weak growth."

Constrained by collective ministerial responsibility, Cable ultimately concludes that the balance of risks remains "a matter of judgement", "which incorporates a political assessment of which risk is the least palatable". But his decision to reopen a debate long regarded as closed by Osborne shows his willingness to dissent from the Treasury line. With government unity already frayed ahead of next summer's Spending Review, the intervention will be viewed with hostility by Cable's cabinet colleagues. 

In a further act of provocation, the Business Secretary uses the essay to launch a withering dismissal of those Conservatives demanding greater deregulation of the labour market and a reduction in workers' rights. 

This bastardised ‘supply side’ economics often degenerates into a saloon bar whine about HSE inspectors, newts and birds which block new development, bloody minded workers, equalities and Eurocrats who dream up regulations for square tomatoes and straight bananas. Philosophical cover is provided by the belief that the private sector can always fill the space left by a retreating state.

In advance of Mark Carney's arrival as governor of the Bank of England in July, Cable also calls for more creative monetary policy, including the expansion of the Bank's quantitative easing programme to include private sector assets. He writes: "There is currently a pause in QE in the UK and two related ideas are being developed to sustain loose monetary policy. The first is for the Central Bank to acquire a wider range of assets from corporate loans to infrastructure project bonds. By taking risk off the private sector balance sheet, we encourage it to find new investments. This is surely sensible."

Cable says the Bank is right to consider targeting growth as well as inflation but adds that the stability provided by the current regime means "the bar for any change must be high."

Osborne, who characterises himself as a "fiscal conservative" but a "monetary activist", is likely to welcome Cable's intervention on this subject. But with the Chancellor already under pressure from Tory MPs to cut taxes, the Business Secretary's call for higher spending, potentially funded by higher borrowing, means he now faces a war on two fronts. 

Update: Shadow financial secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie has responded for Labour. He said that Cable "may at last be seeing sense" but added: "he has consistently supported a failing economic policy which has led to stagnation, falling living standards, slashed investment in infrastructure and rising borrowing to pay for the mounting costs of economic failure."

"Labour, business groups and even the IMF have spent the last two years making the case for this. If Vince Cable is finally coming round to that view he needs to start winning the argument round the Cabinet table, but his words today read like they have been written by a Secretary of State who despite being in office, is not in power."

Business Secretary Vince Cable addresses delegates at the annual CBI conference in London on November 19, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle