There is no need to have “a fight” with Vince Cable because there is nothing to have a fight about. That was the argument David Cameron sought to make during the Q&A following his speech on the economy. He pointed out that Cable’s New Statesman essay had been signed off by the Treasury (a decision Team Osborne may well now regret) and insisted that the Business Secretary was in full agreement with the government’s economic policy.
But as a close reading of both texts shows, the Prime Minister and the Business Secretary are making diametrically opposed arguments on borrowing for growth. Here are three key points of difference.
Where Cameron and Cable disagree
1. Would higher borrowing threaten economic stability?
Cameron claimed that deficit-financed stimulus would “jeopardise” the nation’s finances by triggering a spike in interest rates. Cable said the reverse. Highlighting the long-term maturity of the UK’s debt, he wrote that “we suffer less from the risks of a debt spiral, where refinancing maturing debt rapidly becomes impossible. Consequently, the effect on our fiscal situation of higher interest rates is in fact nowhere near as bad as having weak growth”.
2. Can borrowing for growth aid deficit reduction?
In his speech, Cameron ridiculed those who think “borrowing more money would mean borrowing less”. But in his NS essay, Cable argued that borrowing to invest would not “undermine the central objective of reducing the structural deficit” (a measure that excludes capital spending) and could even assist it “by by reviving growth”.
3. Can the government afford to spend more?
Cameron argued that was there no “magic money tree”, insisting that the government could not afford to borrow to significantly increase spending.
It was precisely this kind of economic fatalism that Cable took a razorblade to. He denounced as “absurd” the claim that capital spending could not be “greatly expanded” and attacked the “pessimists” who say “the central government is incapable of mobilising capital investment quickly”.
Borrowing for growth, he added (rather than imposing further cuts elsewhere), “would inject demand into the weakest sector of our economy – construction – and, at one remove, the manufacturing supply chain (cement, steel). It would target two significant bottlenecks to growth: infrastructure and housing.”