Vince Cable and Danny Alexander's tug of war continues

After publicly disagreeing over the danger of a new housing bubble, the Lib Dem pair find themselves at odds over the end of the coalition.

The return of economic growth and Labour's fall in popularity has convinced the Lib Dems that there's little to be gained from an early exit from the coalition. The alternative of a confidence and supply deal with the Tories is viewed as the worst of all possible worlds. It would do nothing to placate those voters who despise them for propping up a Conservative government (indeed, this charge would have even more resonance), whilst antagonising those who believe they were right to enter coalition "in the national interest".

But during his day of dissent yesterday, Vince Cable used an evening fringe meeting to suggest that the coalition could break up before 2015. He said: "It's certainly possible. We are not at the stage of talking about that process. It is obviously a very sensitive one. It has got to be led by the leader. We have not yet had those conversations."

He later added on Newsnight that the position would be "collectively decided" closer to the election and that "all kinds of things are possible". But on Sky News this morning, Danny Alexander avoided such ambiguity in a calculated slap-down to Cable. He said:

This coalition will continue until the end of this Parliament as we promised for the very simple reason that we have a very big job to do - to clean up the economic mess that Labour left behind and entrench the recovery we are starting to see.

Vince was asked at a fringe meeting to speculate on a range of options. What I'm saying is that we have always made clear our firm intention is to make sure this coalition continues until the end.

We are not going to walk away from that job months or years before the end of the coalition government. We have big Lib Dem commitments to deliver.

lt's not the first time that Alexander and Cable, the party's two most senior economic spokesmen, have found themselves at odds during the Lib Dem conference.

After Cable warned that the government's Help To Buy scheme was in danger of creating a new housing bubble ("the danger lights have been flashing for some time") and suggested that its second phase should be limited to those regions where the market remains depressed, Alexander issued a stern rebuke, declaring that "We are a million miles away from a housing bubble in this country."

He added: "Right now the problem we face in the housing market is we are not building enough new homes and there are vast numbers of young people in work who could afford the monthly payments on their mortgage but simply can't afford the deposit they need to get a mortgage. The whole point of the second phase of the Help to Buy scheme is to help those people fulfil their aspirations and in doing so ensure there is more construction activity, that there are more new homes being built."

With these two clashes, the private tensions between Cable and Alexander, who many Lib Dems believe has been captured by George Osborne, are becoming increasingly public.

Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.