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.

Photo: Getty Images
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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation