Friday, September 04, 2015

Should Vince Cable have been chief secretary to the Treasury?

Vince Cable has sprung back into life these past few days.

He has a website to promote his new book After the Storm and its associated speaking tour.

And he has written an article with Labour's Chuka Umunna for the Independent: The deafening silence on the Government's industrial strategy is ominous.

For many years Vince has been the Liberal Democrats' preeminent voice on economics, yet you have to ask if we made the best use of his talents in government.

One of the party's weaknesses in government was that we never developed a distinctive Lib Dem position on the economy.

Danny Alexander was catapulted into the Treasury following the rapid resignation of David Laws. Because he had no particular knowledge of economics he was at first able to do little more than mouth slogans about "clearing up the mess left by Labour".

Later he became quite an assured performer, but by then it would have been too late even if he did have something interesting to say.

David Laws could have been that distinctive voice - his first Commons appearance at the dispatch box was immensely impressive. But given that his contribution to the Orange Box called for the National Health Service to be replaced by a private insurance system, how far his views on the economy differed from those of the Osbornite orthodoxy is open to question.

So should Vince Cable have been chief secretary to the Treasury?

Someone of Vince's seniority having his own department to run seemed fitting when the Coalition cabinet was appointed, and it was understandable that the reshuffle following David Laws' resignation was made as limited as possible.

But there is an important message here.

If we Liberal Democrats ever find ourselves in power again then our most powerful voice on economics, if he or she is not the party leader, must be in the Treasury.
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Later. There is an enlightening interview with Vince Cable in the Guardian.


Tim Roll-Pickering said...

Having Cable as Chief Secretary to the Treasury (the FST is the number 3 in the department, outside the Cabinet) might well have made things worse for the Coalition, the Lib Dems and Cable.

It's my recollection that it was reported at the time that Cable refused point blank to be Osborne's deputy (and would never have been Chancellor, having the top government department held by the junior coalition party would have made it almost impossible to sell) and so took a semi-detached position instead. (Which created other problems but they were todo with tuition fees and Cable personally.)

Ultimately in a coalition formed to tackle the economic crisis and public spending, the Treasury has to function as a coalition within and a united department outwith. A government can't really have two economic policies in such circumstances (by the time of the yellow box incident things had eased but it still looked like a party trying to be half in, half out of government).

In my opinion the real failure of the Lib Dem in this area was in taking the posts for areas it's heavily associated with - constitutional change, environmentalism, the Celtic Fringe, students. Would it have been too bold if Nick Clegg had been Health Secretary? That would have given him an important job the public are concerned about and the NHS the most senior voice in government.

(It also might have made constitutional change a less tense area. At times a lot of Conservatives felt Clegg just wanted to be "the Great Reformer" and was pushing ill-thought through proposals to satisfy his activists. A less high profile, more consensual building approach might have yielded more results.)

Caron Lindsay said...

I would always feel happier with Vince than Danny in charge of economic policy, but let's remember that Danny did have some grasp of what the economy was all about - he had a degree in the subject.

Jonathan Calder said...

Let's remember that Danny's degree was in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.