Vince Cable has been in the news this morning for an article he has written in the New Statesman.
The article is important because it advocates the financing of more capital investment by borrowing, although it does so in measured tones, weighing up a “balance of risks”. It is also a lengthy and somewhat technical article on economic policy, making it too difficult for anyone with a short attention span. For this reason, it has been subject to dramatic interpretations by the media.
BBC News is an honourable exception (see also Stephanie Flanders’s blog). But the Guardian described the article as, first, “Vince Cable makes direct challenge to Cameron” then later as “Vince Cable contradicts Osborne”, while the Independent’s headline declares “David Cameron and Vince Cable at war over route to recovery”. The Spectator’s Coffee House blog attempts to up the ante with “Vince Cable’s borrowing bombshell”, compared with which the Daily Mirror’s “Vince Cable breaks Coalition ranks” seems restrained.
Is any of this hyperbole justified? One interpretation of events says that it isn’t. The budget is less than two weeks away and it seems doubtful that any cabinet minister – even Vince Cable – would be allowed to rock the boat at this stage. There will have been robust arguments within the government but these have probably been resolved by now. So what is going on?
Has Cable won the argument (as Bill le Breton suggests on Liberal Democrat Voice today)? Is the New Statesman article a curtain-raiser for a budget that will signal a change in direction? Of course, the government will want to save face and deny any failure, so any change in policy would be presented as a seamless continuation of a long-term plan. But are we about to see ‘Plan A+’?
Or is Cable out on a limb? Does David Cameron’s speech today represent a genuine determination to stick with Plan A? Cameron’s warning that changing course would “plunge us back into the abyss” suggests that it does. And what of Nick Clegg’s statement on his weekly LBC phone-in programme this morning? It was hardly a ringing endorsement of Cable’s position, although Clegg revealed that he, Cameron and George Osborne had all seen the New Statesman article before it was published.
If one had to say which is more likely, Cable’s muted optimism or Cameron’s resort to ‘TINA’ (There Is No Alternative), echoed by Clegg, the government will almost certainly opt for the latter.
I’ve been reflecting on the politics of the situation. Why did the ‘Quad’ (Cameron, Osborne, Clegg, Alexander) allow Cable to publish his article, even though it disagrees? After all, if the Quad or the Treasury had wanted to enforce cabinet discipline, they could easily have blocked publication.
This is all about positioning before the budget on 20th March. The Quad clearly plans to stick to ‘Plan A’ (even though it isn’t working) and, in the absence of effective opposition from Labour, needs Cable as a ‘defining other’. Cameron and Clegg could not have made their unrepentant statements today without being able to contrast with a prominent critic. And if Cable hadn’t said what he had said, who else could they have knocked down?