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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

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