Why it is absurd for Cameron to claim that he and Cable are united

The PM and the Business Secretary are making diametrically opposed arguments on borrowing for growth.

There is no need to have "a fight" with Vince Cable because there is nothing to have a fight about. That was the argument David Cameron sought to make during the Q&A following his speech on the economy. He pointed out that Cable's New Statesman essay had been signed off by the Treasury (a decision Team Osborne may well now regret) and insisted that the Business Secretary was in full agreement with the government's economic policy. 

But as a close reading of both texts shows, the Prime Minister and the Business Secretary are making diametrically opposed arguments on borrowing for growth. Here are three key points of difference. 

Where Cameron and Cable disagree

1. Would higher borrowing threaten economic stability?

Cameron claimed that deficit-financed stimulus would "jeopardise" the nation’s finances by triggering a spike in interest rates. Cable said the reverse. Highlighting the long-term maturity of the UK's debt, he wrote that "we suffer less from the risks of a debt spiral, where refinancing maturing debt rapidly becomes impossible. Consequently, the effect on our fiscal situation of higher interest rates is in fact nowhere near as bad as having weak growth". 

2. Can borrowing for growth aid deficit reduction?

In his speech, Cameron ridiculed those who think "borrowing more money would mean borrowing less". But in his NS essay, Cable argued that borrowing to invest would not "undermine the central objective of reducing the structural deficit" (a measure that excludes capital spending) and could even assist it "by by reviving growth".

3. Can the government afford to spend more?

Cameron argued that was there no "magic money tree", insisting that the government could not afford to borrow to significantly increase spending. 

It was precisely this kind of economic fatalism that Cable took a razorblade to. He denounced as "absurd" the claim that capital spending could not be "greatly expanded" and attacked the "pessimists" who say "the central government is incapable of mobilising capital investment quickly". 

Borrowing for growth, he added (rather than imposing further cuts elsewhere), "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."

David Cameron delivers his speech on the economy during a visit to precision grinding engineers Kinetic Landis Ltd on March 7, 2013 in Keighley. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.