Paddy Ashdown and Ming Campbell take pre-conference swipes at Cable

Campbell tells Cable "don't be quite so gloomy" and Ashdown says that Clegg's enemy Lord Oakeshott is "Vince’s problem".

Nick Clegg and his allies have often privately expressed their frustration at how Vince Cable has sought (with some success) to avoid taking full responsibility for policies such as the tuition fees rise and the austerity programme by regularly positioning himself to the left of the coalition. But what is striking today is that two former Lib Dem leaders have gone public with their criticisms of the Business Secretary. In an article for the Guardian, ahead of the opening of the party's conference in Glasgow tomorrow, Ming Campbell writes: "And by the way Dr Cable, don't be quite so gloomy!" 

While recognising the importance of differentiating themselves from the Tories on the economy, the Lib Dems also want to take their share of the credit for the recovery. Cable's consciously downbeat assessment this week was widely viewed as unhelpful. 

In addition, following Lord Oakeshott's hackneyed call for the party to consider removing Clegg, Paddy Ashdown, the Lib Dem leader's political godfather, remarked: "I think Matthew’s self-appointed position as a sort of vicar on Earth for Vince does neither of them any good ... but that’s Vince’s problem". 

With these interventions, Campbell and Ashdown are rather kicking a kick at a man when's he down. A year ago, when Clegg's position still seemed at risk, Cable was viewed as the party's leader-in-waiting. He memorably signalled his interest in the position ("I don’t exclude it – who knows what might happen in the future...The worship of youth has diminished – perhaps generally – in recent years.") and was aided by a poll showing that the Lib Dems would gain four points with him as leader. But the Eastleigh by-election (which proved that the party could win in its strongholds) and the return of growth (which deflated Cable's call in the New Statesman for a plan B) mean that his star has waned. As I suggest in this week's NS, Tim Farron is now the man to watch. 

Vince Cable at the Liberal Democrat spring conference in Brighton earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How austere will Philip Hammond be?

The Chancellor must choose between softening or abandoning George Osborne's approach in his Autumn Statement. 

After becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond was swift to confirm that George Osborne's budget surplus target would be abandoned. The move was hailed by some as the beginning of a new era of fiscal policy - but it was more modest than it appeared. Rather than a statement of principle, the abandonment of the 2019-20 target was merely an acceptance of reality. In the absence of additional spending cuts or tax rises, it would inevitably be missed (as Osborne himself recognised following the EU referendum). The decision did not represent, as some suggested, "the end of austerity".

Ahead of his first Autumn Statement on 23 November, the defining choice facing Hammond is whether to make a more radical break. As a new Resolution Foundation report notes, the Chancellor could either delay the surplus target (the conservative option) or embrace an alternative goal. Were he to seek a current budget suplus, rather than an overall one (as Labour pledged at the last general election), Hammond would avoid the need for further austerity and give himself up to £17bn of headroom. This would allow him to borrow for investment and to provide support for the "just managing" families (as Theresa May calls them) who will be squeezed by the continuing benefits freeze.

Alternatively, should Hammond merely delay Osborne's surplus target by a year (to 2020-21), he would be forced to impose an additional £9bn of tax rises or spending cuts. Were he to reject any further fiscal tightening, a surplus would not be achieved until 2023-24 - too late to be politically relevant. 

The most logical option, as the Resolution Foundation concludes, is for Hammond to target a current surplus. But since entering office, both he and May have emphasised their continuing commitment to fiscal conservatism ("He talks about austerity – I call it living within our means," the latter told Jeremy Corbyn at her first PMQs). For Hammond to abandon the goal of the UK's first budget surplus since 2001-02 would be a defining moment. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.