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.

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.