Cable pours cold water on Osborne's green shoots

After the Chancellor declared that Britain was "turning the corner", the Business Secretary warns against "complacency", generated by "a few quarters of good economic data."

One can always rely on Vince Cable to provide a dose of economic realism (as he did in his famous pre-Budget New Statesman piece) and after George Osborne's triumphalist speech on Monday, the coalition's wizened seer has intervened again. In a speech to a CBI conference today, he will say: 

The kind of growth we want won't simply emerge of its own volition. In fact, I see a number of dangers. One is complacency, generated by a few quarters of good economic data. Recovery will not be meaningful until we see strong and sustained business investment.

Osborne, by contrast, declared that Britain was "turning a corner" on the basis of just two consecutive quarters of growth. 

Labour, unsurprisingly, has been quick to note the marked difference in tone between the Chancellor and the Business Secretary. Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna said: "This is an embarrassing slapdown to George Osborne’s deeply complacent and out of touch speech this week.

"But it also reminds everyone that you can’t trust a word the Lib Dems say. Vince Cable has supported the Chancellor’s policies which choked off the recovery in 2010. Three wasted years of flatlining that has left families worse off and done long term damage to our economy is his record and he should take responsibility for it."

In response, and three days before the Lib Dem conference opens in Glasgow, Cable is keen to put some clear yellow water between himself and Osborne, most notably on housing. While the Chancellor provided a robust defence of his Help To Buy scheme on Monday, Cable fears that the government is inflating demand without addressing the fundamental problem of supply. In his speech he will warn that "There are risks, not least the housing market getting out of control."

Cable has been angered by Osborne's refusal to accept his plan to allow councils to pool their borrowing limits in order to build more affordable houses. As he recently told the Social Liberal Forum: "What is stopping them? Frankly, Tory dogma. And the Tories are hiding behind Treasury methodology, saying that more borrowing by councils beyond permitted limits will break the fixed rules.

"So even though freeing up this borrowing space would result in tens of thousands more homes being built, and many times more jobs, they would rather start talking about the cuts they want to make, rather than the houses that we should build. That is the difference between Lib Dems and Tories on this matter."

Expect to hear much more about this in Glasgow, where Lib Dem delegates will vote on Cable's proposal. So long as Osborne continues to resist any reform, he risks being outflanked on an issue of increasing political significance. 

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.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.