Friday, November 14, 2008

House Points: Strengths and weaknesses of Lib Dem economics

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.


Last time the Liberal Democrats called a Commons debate on the economy, the treasury minister Angela Eagle was scathing. Our motion read "like the storyboard for Apocalypse Now or perhaps even Bleak House." Why, it even said Britain faced the risk of recession! "Fortunately for all of us," Eagle reassured the House, "that colourful and lurid fiction has no real bearing on the macro-economic reality."

For good measure, she added: "Hysterical overreaction … might attract a few cheap headlines … but it is not mature or responsible."

That was April. Eagle was in her place again on Monday, but in a very different world. As Philip Hammond, the Tory shadow treasury minister pointed out, her reply to Vince Cable’s opening speech used the words "global" or "globally" 21 times. There was no mention of any of the policy or regulatory failures made in the UK.

But then Vince is, well, invincible at present. One commentator describes him as the nation’s kindly uncle. Another writes: "Everyone likes him. He predicted this crisis but is not crowing about it. He is comprehensible, calm and human. Can’t we just get him to sort it all out?" One even claims he is descended from Sir Thomas More.

All of which means it is safe to ask a few questions about Lib Dem economic policy. Our first package - the 4p cut in income tax funded by green taxes and closing loopholes for high earners - is well understood. But is our second package - the £20bn of spending cuts - so clear?

There was some wobbling during the Bournemouth Conference, but eventually it was widely agreed that the £20bn would be used to fund our different spending priorities. There would only be tax cuts if there were something left over after that.

Today that money is earmarked for tax cuts, with a danger of confusion or double counting. The other day Nick Clegg said we would use the money saved by scrapping identity cards to cut income tax, but Chris Huhne still proposes to spend it on more police officers.

While Super Vince bestrides the globe, none of this matters much. But we do need to agree a clear policy in time for the next election.

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