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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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.