With everyone from George Osborne downwards now acknowledging that growth this year will be weaker-than-expected, an argument has restarted in government about how best to stimulate the economy. Last night, the BBC’s Nick Robinson reported that some cabinet ministers were agitating for an extra £5bn in capital spending, to be channelled towards the nation’s roads, rail and broadband internet.
Naturally, Robinson didn’t name names, but I draw your attention to comments made by Chris Huhne at a fringe event at the Lib Dem conference on Monday night. “Remember … the target that we have is the structural current balance,” the Energy Secretary said. “It is current not capital spending. That is an important distinction.” In other words, the government could ramp up capital spending without breaching its fiscal mandate: to eliminate the structural deficit (the part of the deficit that remains even once when the economy has returned to normal growth) and to ensure a falling debt-to-GDP ratio by the end of the parliament. Huhne has since insisted that he doesn’t recognise the £5bn figure and that there is “no such plan”. As the great Claud Cockburn once quipped, “never believe anything until has been officially denied”.
Whoever the culprit was (and Vince Cable uttered the s-word – stimulus – several times in his speech), they were swiftly squashed by the Treasury. “We have our spending plans and we are sticking to them,” a spokesman said.
Appearing on the Today programme this morning, an uneasy sounding Danny Alexander stuck to the script. The government would “strain every sinew” to promote growth but it would not spend a penny more then the limits set out in the Spending Review. “We have set out plans on capital spending, we’re going to stick to those plans across the board on spending,” the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said. He added: “I just don’t recognise the numbers involved or the process as described.”
It was Chris Huhne who previously suggested that the cuts could be scaled back in the event of a serious downturn, and who declared that he was not “lashed to the mast” of deficit reduction. But Alexander certainly is. As growth continues to fall and unemployment continues to rise, this is one argument that will not go away.