Vince Cable managed to hit all the Lib Dem spots last night with his fringe speech at the Lib Dem spring conference. He didn’t just mention the words ‘land value tax’, which set many Lib Dem heads nodding away with approval, but also managed to say ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ in Swahili, and accuse right-wing Conservatives of waging ‘jihad’ against public spending and public services. Here are three main points from his speech:
1. Cable said certain Tory ‘ideologues’ were waging ‘jihad’ against public spending.
It wasn’t clear whether the Business Secretary was attacking his Tory Cabinet colleagues or backbenchers like Liam Fox and David Ruffley when he said:
‘There is going to be pressure on public spending and I think what we have to make absolutely clear as a party that there is a difference between managing public spending in that context, we have to have financial wisdom, and the kind of thing that a lot of right-wing Conservatives are pushing for which is Tea Party, some kind of ideological jihad against public spending and public services.’
He criticised those who favour ‘so-called supply-side economics: a very ambiguous phrase’, and accused both Tories and Labour of refusing to talk about the ‘massive crisis of financial capitalism’, saying Labour reminded him of Basil Fawlty trying not to mention the Second World War to a group of German hotel guests.
2. He reiterated his resistance to cuts to his department in the 2015/16 spending review
But what was more striking was that he did not make an impassioned defence of the welfare budget. We were waiting for it to happen, but it didn’t come. And in his Guardian interview today, the Business Secretary turns attention again onto pensioner perks such as the Winter Fuel Payment.
He opened his remarks with a joke about the other ministers opposing the cuts in the spending review:
‘I could have come here with some of the militants from the National Union of Ministers. You might well have had Comrade Pickles and Sister May, but I did reach an agreement with them that I would come and speak and they would stay on the picket line.’
And later in his speech he returned to the NUM and the spending review, saying it would be ‘utterly counterproductive’ to cut some of his areas of responsibility. ‘I don’t need lectures on the need to manage public finance carefully because we have to do that,’ he told the room. But he said Liberal Democrats wouldn’t allow certain spending cuts to happen.
3. Capital spending cuts had been a mistake, Cable argued
He repeated some of the ideas he examined in his New Statesman article, saying:
‘You’ve also had the massive cuts in capital expenditure by central government, it was launched by Mr Darling, who almost cut capital spending by half. We’ve retrieved some of that but by no means all of it. I think both Nick Clegg and I have gone out publicly and said that the slashing of public investment was a very, very bad policy mistake. And I think if I was looking at this in common-sense terms, I would say well look, you have underplayed resources in industry, you have great need.. and you have cheap capital, low interest rates in international capital markets, the government can borrow from them, why don’t we put those together and use some of that money in order to get ahead with housebuilding and infrastructure. And indeed that’s what I was writing about in that controversial article that broke into the news last week.’
Steve Webb is speaking later today on welfare, and Nick Clegg has a Q&A in the afternoon, too. It will be interesting to see what noises these two make about the 2015/16 spending review, and Vince’s borrowing plea.