Government gloom after Cable clanger and borrowing bonanza

The Business Secretary's unguarded comments about the Coalition are certainly damaging - if only to Vince himself. And some rotten news on the public finances won't help matters.

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
Oh dear. Vince Cable has spent the morning trying to drag his dancing feet out of his mouth, after undercover Telegraph reporters persuaded him to dish some dirt on the Tory/ Lib Dem Coalition. The Business Secretary suggested that policies were being pushed through too quickly, that the two parties were divided over key issues, and that if he gets pushed too far he might take the 'nuclear option' of resigning - a move, he said, that could 'bring the Government down'. Whether this is true or not (and frankly, we're not convinced) this episode doesn't reflect well on Vince's judgement, and it doesn't bode well for his chances of making himself heard at the top table. So while there's been lots of talk about the potential damage to the Coalition, it'll probably do more damage to Vince himself - and, possibly, the business agenda.

Vince was caught out (rather too easily, it sounds) by two journalists posing as constituents. The Telegraph is making great play of the fact that, contrary to the harmonious image the Coalition is trying to present to the outside world, the two sides are actually - according to Vince - 'fighting a war... a constant battle' behind the scenes over issues like the banks, tax and tuition fees. But to be honest, we can't see why anyone would be surprised that two parties, with entirely separate manifestos, disagree over policy. Surely the whole point of a Coalition is that the two sides can thrash out a compromise position (or horse-trade one gain for another)?

But while the story itself may not be terribly revelatory, it doesn’t portray Cable in a good light. If he's signed up to the Coalition, as he has, he surely has some responsibility to defend its actions - not just claim credit for the things he likes and wash his hands of everything else. If this was a business, the CEO would expect a degree of collective responsibility from his senior team. And if the Prime Minister can't trust Cable to do that, it's a bit hard to see how he can stay in a senior role. With rumours already afoot that ministers want to give his job to David Laws instead, this has further undermined his credibility and influence - which is going to make life difficult for his department in the near term.

Just to make the Government's morning even worse, the latest public borrowing figures look decidedly hairy. The UK had to cadge a net £23.3bn in November; that's yet another monthly record, and a third as much again as the £17.4bn we borrowed in November 2009. The City, which was expecting the number to be about the same as last year, was suitably aghast - lots of analysts reckon we might now miss our deficit target of £149bn for this financial year. OK, so it's only one month - and some of this spending (health, defence and - to the horror of the right-wing tabloids - the EU were the main culprits) may turn out to be one-offs. But it has made some a bit more sceptical about the Government's ability to actually deliver the cost savings it has promised. After all, there's no great evidence of it thus far.

On the other hand, perhaps these numbers are well timed. One of Vince's moans to these phoney constituents of his was that the Coalition's programme was going too far, too fast. Not on the evidence of that borrowing figure, the Treasury may well retort...

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