Vince Cable’s speech at the Lib Dem conference (read it in full here) felt like a settling of scores. The Business Secretary took aim at the Murdoch empire, Gordon Brown and even David Cameron’s policy adviser Steve Hilton. Of the latter, who once proposed abolishing maternity leave, he declared: “What I will not do though is provide cover for ideological descendents of those who sent children up chimneys. Panic in financial markets won’t be stopped by scrapping maternity rights.”
His attack on the economic right continued. He derided the Lafferites who believe that cutting taxes on the rich will “miraculously” generate new revenue, and asked what “solar system” those who depicted his mansion tax as an attack on “ordinary middle class owners” were living in. But the biggest applause came when, in reference to News International, Cable spoke of his pride that “we never compromised ourselves in that company.”
Yet while Cable threw plenty of red meat to the Lib Dem faithful, he combined this with a robust but distinctive defence of George Osborne’s deficit reduction strategy. In pursuing fiscal contraction, the Lib Dems, he said, were “following in the footsteps of Stafford Cripps and Roy Jenkins in Britain and, abroad, the Canadian Liberals, Scandinavian Social Democrats and Clinton Democrats in the USA.” In a swipe at messrs Balls and Miliband, he added: “They understood, unlike today’s Labour Party – that the progressive agenda of centre left parties cannot be delivered by bankrupt Governments.” The word that blows Cable’s argument apart is “bankrupt”. Britain was never on the “brink of bankruptcy” and debt as a percentage of GDP is still lower now than it was for most of the 20th century. Hardly ideal, but then as Cable himself argued: “[W]e now face a crisis that is the economic equivalent of war.”
He was admirably frank about Britain’s economic woes, insisting pace Cameron that there are no “sunny uplands”, only “grey skies”. Indeed, whether you favour Keynesian stimulus (as the NS does) or Hayekian austerity, the truth is that the UK faces a permanently reduced level of growth (the reason why the structural deficit is £12bn higher-than-expected).
In an attempt to distinguish himself from Osborne (who was not mentioned by name), Cable made repeated references to the government’s “stimulus” programme and to the need for “fairness”, what he called a “more responsible capitalism”. And he put some red water between himself and Nick Clegg by vowing to reduce income inequality (a concept Clegg has suggested is outdated). But for all his undoubted sincerity, Cable is a member of a government that is presiding over anaemic growth and that is likely to leave office with poverty and inequality higher than when it entered. When the time comes to assess the coalition’s record, Cable’s progressive rheotric will offer scant comfort.