Cable's most serious challenge yet to Cameron's authority: "Jeremiah was right"

The Business Secretary's repeated attacks on the Tories in his speech and his warnings of a new housing bubble meant it was easy to forget he is serving in the government at all.

There were moments in Vince Cable's speech to the Lib Dem conference where you had to pause to remind yourself that he is a serving member of the government, rather than an opposition politician. While Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander are focused on ensuring that the Lib Dems receive their share of the credit for the economic recovery, Cable cast himself as a Cassandra warning of a new and dangerous housing boom.

In the most striking passage of his speech, he declared that "there are already amber lights flashing to warn us of history repeating itself" and derided those (George Osborne) who would settle for "a short-term spurt of growth fuelled by old-fashioned property boom and bankers rediscovering their mojo". After David Cameron rather mildly remarked, "It's not right to cast Vince as a perpetual Jeremiah. He can brighten up from time to time", Cable pulled no punches in response, quipping that "David Cameron has called me a Jeremiah, but you’ll recall from your reading of the Old Testament that Jeremiah was right." He added: "He [Jeremiah] warned that Jerusalem would be overrun by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar.  In my own Book of Lamentations I described how Gordon Brown’s New Jerusalem was overrun by an army of estate agents, property speculators and bankers.

"The problem we have now is that the invaders are coming back.  They have a bridgehead in London and the south east of England. They must be stopped.  Instead we need sustainable growth."

Cable has never been a stirring platform orator and the response from delegates was more muted than in previous years but the speech was the most significant he has delivered since becoming Business Secretary. More than at any other point, he has gone exceeding the normal limits of collective responsibility.

While the speech opened with a recollection of the "unhealthy tribalism" and "Tammany Hall culture" that led him to resign from Labour in the 1970s (which he suggested had been reborn in Falkirk and other "Labour fiefdoms"), it was otherwise dominated by excoriating attacks on the Tories. He declared that "the nasty party" was back, with "dog whistle politics, orchestrated by an Australian Rottweiler.  Hostility towards organised labour, people on benefits and immigrant minorities." He rebuked his "cabinet colleagues" for "careless talk" about Britain leaving the EU and declared: "Let’s remember that we voted to join the present Coalition.  We did not vote to join a coalition with UKIP."

Elsewhere, in a rebuke to those on the right of the Lib Dems, such as Jeremy Browne and David Laws, seeking to push the party in a more free market direction, he warned that it was not enough to be "a nicer version of the Tories", again signalling his instinctive preference for Labour.

Ahead of 2015, the balancing act required of the Lib Dems is to differentiate themselves from the Tories without discrediting the government they have served in for more than three years. After Cable's unreserved attacks on the coalition's economic policies, Clegg will feel that the Business Secretary has failed in that task.

Vince Cable delivers his speech at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.