Category Archives: Vince Cable

A quick fisking

Two prefatory notes:
1. Each week-day morning I get three emails:

    • The Times is usually first out of the traps with Matt Chorley’s Red Box;
    • Paul Waugh shrewdly chips in with Waugh Zone, the political lead of HuffPo UK;
    • and, trailing the rear, because he has been mulling yet another excruciatingly-brilliant punning headline, comes the New Statesman‘s Stephen Bush.

2. Back in the days of yore, when social media were in their infancy, we took umbrage at the utterances of Robert Fisk. Because we were so much more intelligent than Fisk, we would “fisk” his columns, with counter arguments.

So, this grey Yorkshire morning, I’m fisking Paul Waugh.

REALITY BITES

Way back in 2010, David Cameron made the Liberal Democrats “a big, open and comprehensive offer” to join him in Government. Tomorrow, Theresa May will make what looks to Labour like a small, closed and limited offer to prop her up in power.

Without exception — and for once even the Torygraph is on board — the commentariat do not like the idea.

May’s relaunch speech has been well trailed overnight and includes a line that she will accept “the new reality” of her loss of a Parliamentary majority. But given her lifelong instinct of trusting only a tight-knit team around her, can May reach out to her own party, let alone Labour and others? May rightly wants to build consensus on areas like social care, but just ask Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham how open to cross-party working she has been in the past. On the Today programme, even the impeccably moderate Damian Green underlined the difficulties of any cross-party working, ridiculing Angela Rayner over the cost of wiping out all student debt. No wonder Labour’s Andrew Gwynne dismissed May’s olive branch, saying “they’re having to beg for policy proposals from Labour”.

We are not — heaven forfend! — to see this as a “relaunch”. Such lèse-majesté would deny the glory of Number 10.

The rest of that paragraph amount to a recital of so many current metropolitan political memes. Memes they may be; but they seem copper-bottomed. The jibe about student debt should not be over-looked: all sides are now coming around to recognising what a total disaster, educationally and financially — as well as electorally, the ConDem government inflicted by cranking up student fees and debt to the highest in the developed world. Predictably, the Tories continue, officially, to impale themselves while, behind the arras, scratching around for a way to climb-down.

If the UK were Germany, we might have seen some sort of ‘grand coalition’ in the wake of the snap election, driven by a sense of national mission to deliver a consensual Brexit (I remember Gisela Stuart floating the Tory-Labour coalition idea if the 2015 election had seen a hung Parliament). But we are not Germany and it takes world wars, rather than impending trade wars, to make our opposing parties work together on that level.

The essential differences between English and continental political practices derive from:

  • the shape of the Commons chamber, itself a distant legacy from the choir-stalls of St Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster. Once there are two sides, each individual member of the Commons had to decide whether he (and it was always a “he”) was right of the Speaker (the Administration) or left (Opposition). Not for nothing are the two front benches traditionally two swords’ lengths apart.
  • over the centuries, the main supply of parliamentarians has been the Law, they are a contrarian, disputatious and forensic lot. Each argument has to be set against a counter-argument. Remember Swift’s satire of the Little-Endians versus the BigEndians.

Of course, Jeremy Corbyn’s success so far has been built on vigorously opposing the Tories, not working with them. And everyone in Parliament remembers just how badly burned the Lib Dems were by the Tories in coalition, never given credit for the good stuff, blamed for the bad stuff. May will say tomorrow that through cross-party working, “ideas can be clarified and improved and a better way forward found”. But in fact she’s admitting the reality that just 7 Tory MPs is all it takes to defeat the Government. And critics will say the only true way to get her to make concessions is to threaten rebellion after rebellion.

“Jeremy Corbyn’s success so far“: notice two presumptions there. “Success” in practice amounts to gaining 30 seats when all the indicators were for a possible loss of as many as sixty. However, in all truth, Labour opposition has been remarkably limited: in particular on the #Brexit thing. When 49 Labour MPs voted against the Government to keep the UK in the single market, they were abused and worse by Corbynite supporters.

One person who could more credibly make a genuinely big, bold offer to Labour is David Davis, precisely because he would be trusted by his own side not to sell out on the big principles, while being pragmatic enough on how to deliver them. I’ve said before that DD is the Martin McGuinness of the Brexit movement, capable of compromise without abandoning his supporters’ main strategic goal. And despite errors from key allies like Andrew Mitchell, he looks increasingly like the favourite in any Tory leadership race. Green this morning reiterated David Lidington’s line about “the warm Prosecco problem” of Tory MPs gossiping about the leadership. But Mitchell’s parties feature only the finest Champagne, and DD himself likes a pint of bitter. That’s the kind of cross-class, party consensus that May will need to worry about most.

For little obvious reason — but mainly, one has to suspect, for want of a better — David Davis has emerged as the Tory front-runner for a new leader (and, in the present dispensation, Prime Minister). I cannot help musing the Waugh over-eggs his pudding with the “trusted by his own side”. The ultras on the frothing right of the Tory Party trust no-one but themselves — which is why Theresa May keeps head-bangers and second-raters like Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom as household pets. As of now, Davis’s key strength is keeping in line. Were he to go rogue, he could easily bring down the whole shebang.

One final, dislocated thought:

John Rentoul (another commentator of value) is, but of course, cocking an ironic eye there. Irony on irony: that Paul Staines (by name and by nature) felt moved to protect “the establishment”.

On Saturday I was at the Big Meeting, the Durham Miners’ Gala. The Red Banners flew free. The Red Flag was sung, and — uniquely — the singers knew more than the first verse and chorus.  Tee-shirts proclaimed ¡No pasarán! and La lutte continue! I even heard a scratch band bash out The Internationale. I could have bought books, badges and posters celebrating Lenin, Trotsky, James Connolly.

It was all festive, and slightly tongue-in-cheek. For all the revolutionary ardor, these subversives were set on little more than getting down the next pint.

And yet, according to Guido Fawkes: they had already won! These north-easterners had voted #Brexit. They were successfully challenging the Establishment.

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Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho!

The magic of Disney is to take an old, hackneyed tale, and add a populist twist. It’s a formula which has been successful since the first full-length toon of 1937: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Yes, folks: that’s the proper spelling of the title.

The knack there, apart from the archetypal mix of schmaltz and scary, …

Aside, trivia from imdb:

Was the first of many Disney films to have its premiere engagement at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. At the end of the film’s initial engagement there, all the velvet seat upholstery had to be replaced. It seems that young children were so frightened by the sequence of Snow White lost in the forest that they wet their pants, and consequently the seats, at each and every showing of the film.

… was giving the persons of restricted growth individual characters through the shorthand of naming them. According to the movie trivialists, several dozen names were debated for the iconic Seven.

Which brings us to the present ConDem cabinet, that compote of failed PR snake-oilersinterior decorators and private health hucksters. It takes a nano-second to recognise  Snooty, SneeryBaldy and Dozy in this batch.

It is moot whether Theresa May (who has swanned through a less-troubled year at the Home Office, something unprecedented in recent history) should audition for Snow White or Queen or the Witch — but isn’t it somehow appropriate that her maiden name was Brasier? Either way, should Snooty fall under the proverbial bus (or, more likely, under the increasing displeasure of his own back-benches) May is regarded as worth a punt in the leadership stakes.

And then there’s Grumpier

The feastdays of “Saint Vince” are long since over and done.

Yet, the suspicion remains that some shreds of the honest man linger in the den of rogues. That he has survived in the Cabinet this long testifies to a low threshold of embarrassment. He clearly is the left man in the right job in the wrong government.

His interview for today’s Guardian should be seminal, going far beyond the ConDem mantra that it’s all the fault of the previous tenants:

He said: “We have had a very, very profound crisis which is going to take a long time to dig out of. It is about the deficit, but that is only one of the symptoms. We had the complete collapse of a model based on consumer spending, a housing bubble, an overweight banking system – three banks each of them with a balance sheet larger than the British economy. It was a disaster waiting to happen and it did happen. It has done profound damage and it is damage that is going to last a long time.”

Some of us have been saying much the same, in different contexts, ever since, in 1962, Dean Acheson noted that Britain had lost its Empire without finding a rôle. C. Northcote Parkinson had anticipated Acheson by five years, noting that colonial bureaucrats proliferated as colonies reduced, and proposing that one day British admirals would outnumber British ships.

Recent posturings in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya trebly underline the persistence of all that. Even so, the military machine demands more submarines, bigger missiles, larger aircraft carriers and glossier medal-encrusted uniforms.

Vince’s torpedo

One bit bites the ConDem hand that feeds him:

It is about the deficit, but that is only one of the symptoms. We had the complete collapse of a model based on consumer spending, a housing bubble, an overweight banking system – three banks each of them with a balance sheet larger than the British economy.

Deep breath.

If there was a single moment in the banking crisis when the whole thing went pear-shaped for Britain, it wasn’t the implosion of the US sub-primes. Even Northern Rock (destroyed by its link with Lehman Brothers) was containable. It was when the Irish Government guaranteed, in totality, deposits in the Irish banks. The knock-on was instant — the Conservative opposition (until then, arch-deregulators) and Sneery-the-putative-18th-baronet loudest in demanding the British government follow suit.

A crisis of over-production

Where western capitalism has been supremely successful is in the production of capital. That has been over an extended period when economic growth in the Western economies has been sluggish. All that loose capital had to go somewhere. It went into property speculation. Therein lies Vince’s unholy trinity of consumer debt, ghost estates and bust banks.

Many of us, too, saw the germs of this disease in the de-industrializing of Britain. The Thatcherites reckoned Britain didn’t really need to produce things: it was the service economy that mattered. Buy in the cheapest world markets, sell at a profit to a home market (financed by credit-cards), wax fat on the difference.

Now Vince recognises that game is well and truly up:

He predicted the impact on people’s lives will not come primarily from government spending cuts, but the squeeze in living standards caused by world prices and a 20% devaluation of sterling against other major currencies.

Without questioning the growth forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, he stressed the uncertainty of external factors. “We cannot predict what is going to happen in the eurozone, and how that is going to impact on us, and we cannot predict what is going to happen to oil prices.

That looks like a draft of ConDem Apologia #2.0: it’s all the fault of those pesky world markets. A year ago Gordon Brown was derided for that: now it’s handy-dandy:

Hark, in thine ear: change places; and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?

All-in-all, let’s be grateful for Vince as a national monument. If there is any hope of curtailing Sneery, the Mad Axe-Man, Vince is it. Who else in this present Cabinet of Dwarfs would venture to voice the K-word:

“What is not often acknowledged is that there is a lot of flexibility built into current policy. The main element of flexibility is in monetary policy and the second is the basic Keynesian stabilisers. That is the way the government is functioning. We are not trying to maintain budget balance come what may. If the economy slows down, the deficit temporarily has to rise to take account of cyclical change, flexibility is built in.”

You almost want to believe him.

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VAT vas that you say? Huh?

The general Opposition view is that the December VAT reduction to 15% was a damp-squib.

The Tories say so. Even Saint Vince Cable has opined to that end.

Unfortunately, nobody convinced Ireland’s Finance Minister, Brian Lenihan.

There he was, last Friday, at a business lunch, “candidly” recognising his own errors.

Here’s Daniel McConnell with a block-buster for the Sindi:

Embattled Finance Minister Brian Lenihan has admitted that his decision to increase the VAT rate in last October’s budget was a “serious mistake” which has cost the state over €700m in lost trade to the North.

Let’s run that past the post in slow motion. Lenihan thinks a half-per-cent increase in VAT was a significant mistake.

That, and the Darling cut to 15%, made a differential of 6½% between the two jurisdictions.

The result was that:

At the lunch, Mr Lenihan also quoted figures he said he received from leading drinks company Diageo which showed that 49 per cent of all drinks consumed on the island of Ireland were purchased in the North because of lower prices.

Department of Finance sources have confirmed that a reduction in the tax on alcohol may be considered in next month’s Budget because of the huge number of shoppers from the Republic going north.

Half of the whole booze intake of the 26 Counties is sourced from the Six!

More evidence is in the empty shells of closed stores across the swathe of Leinster from the border to north Dublin, in the registration plates of cars from Galway and points south in the car-parks of the NI retail parks.

So, Diddy Dave and the Boy Gids need not try and sell that bit of snake oil in Newry and Derry. The great intellect of the Twickenham terpsicorian may not shine quite so brightly in Dungannon and Strabane.

Do the maths. €700 million of missing VAT amounts to three and a quarter billion euros of extra cross-Border trade. And it’s going in one direction. Allow for the extra tax on drink and petrol and the UK Exchequer trousered way over half a billion sterling of that.

A small bonus to the occupying Brits?

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GNU? But who gets the Ministry of Aircraft Production?

beaver-hatThe evidence is there still, across many “naice” parts of British cities: the stubs of front-garden railings, neatly trimmed off at ground level.

That is a lasting legacy of Churchill’s Minister of Aircraft Production, Max Beaverbrook.

Churchill saw a problem: the Air Marshals, he felt, had not prioritised home defence. They were building offensive bombers (and not very good ones) when the need was for defensive fighters (and very good ones). The target need was 200 fighters a month: the new Spitfire had been stalled because of the complex ellipse of its wings.  So Churchill appointed the Beaver over the Air Ministry’s heads.

It was a brilliant move. Churchill and Beaverbrook went back a long way, to Lloyd George’s War Cabinet, and shared many political views. From the beginning MAP was run on business, not civil service lines: its head was imported from the Ford Motor Company.

The first step was to protect skilled workers from call-up (Ernie Bevin did that with a stroke of his dictatorial pen). Women were recruited to fill the remaining gaps in the work-force.

Then Beaverbrook recruited the nation, and beyond. Anybody, any group could sponsor a Spitfire: the nominal price was £5,000 (though the real cost was two or three times that amount). Eventually, going on for a fifth of all Spitfires were sponsored that way.

Collection of scrap metal, especially aluminium, was run as a populist campaign. This rounded up huge quantities of pots and pans: very little of which was of aeronautical quality, but it was a morale-booster and engaged the populace. That was when swathes of Georgian and Victorian ironwork went to the scrap-yard.

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Periodically since then, Press Barons have been seduced by Beaverbrook’s example. They, too, could emulate his achievement. They, too, could be the heroes of the hour.

The cry goes up that the country needs a Government of National Unity (with the sotto-voce sub-text, “and the owner of this news-sheet in there to show how it should be done”).

The worst outbreak of this dementia was when Cecil King attempted a coup d’état. George Evans, of the Sunday Telegraph (reviewing Ruth Dudley-Edwards) had the full skinny:

Megalomania, there is no other word for it, and an obsession with politics drove him to conclude that Harold Wilson and the Socialist government had lost credibility and authority. He decided they would have to go to make way for an emergency coalition government of businessmen and others under the titular leadership of Lord Mountbatten. Mountbatten who accused him of folie de grandeur dismissed the idea of taking over the country as rank treason and told King to get out when he put it to him.

Two days after Mountbatten and King met The Daily Mirror came out with a signed article by King which filled most of the front page. Headlined ‘Enough is Enough’, it called on the Parliamentary Labour Party to get rid of Wilson. The country, he wrote was threatened with the greatest financial crisis in its history. Since he was a director of the Bank of England it was a declaration which caused outrage and a high state of alarm in the money markets. It was more than enough for the directors of the IPC who had become increasingly concerned over his preoccupation with politics and diminishing interest in running the company. A board meeting unanimously decided that he should be asked to retire forthwith. He refused to go and was dismissed without further ado…

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vince-hatIt could well be that we are due for another outbreak. And, this time, it is the sainted Vince Cable who seems to be nominating himself.

His piece for the end-of-year Mail on Sunday was sheer titillation:

In the New Year the Government may have to take more direct control of the banks; to restructure them, stripping out their casino operations; and ensuring that banks do their job of lending to sound businesses and households.

We must recognise the need for government to act and invest, to keep the economy afloat in the current emergency conditions but to prepare us psychologically for a period beyond in which there has to be much greater financial discipline, both public and private.

There is, however, a deeper and bigger question: how to maintain a sense of national unity and purpose while the crisis unfolds.


There is a vacuum of leadership waiting to be filled

Even if all the steps taken by governments work, it will take time to produce results.

Next year will be like an economic battle in which there are mounting casualties coming back from the front line but no sign of victory.

I believe the public will see the need to ‘stick together’ and, in particular, will expect the political parties to rise above the usual petty, tribal bickering.

There will be calls for a ‘government of national unity’, to get political adversaries round a table working together rather than pointing fingers at each other.

There must, of course, be vigorous debate and public accountability, as well as unity, but I think the public senses that this is not what they are getting at the moment.

etc. etc.

That wasn’t the start of the infection: it seems to have been part of the journos’ scuttlebutt, late night in dreary hotel bars, during the last conference season. Michael White was trailing it in the Guardian, last September, under the headline:

Financial crisis may lead to government of national unity

Again, there were particular names in the frame:

I listened to two politicians who can chew gum and walk in a straight line, MPs who carry serious weight. At a Fabian/CentreForum fringe meeting in Bournemouth, Dr Vince Cable and Charles Clarke squared up against each other to discuss points of common interest and divergence between potential partners in advancement of the “progressive agenda” in the 21st century.

Ah, yes, there has to be an agreed “progressive agenda”

And for White (who should be above such nonsense) the bottom line is explicit:

It is no longer impossible to imagine that a wider reconstruction of government might be needed if the Wall Street and world storm gets much worse. We had a wartime coalition in 1915-18, another after the financial crash of 1931, a third from May 1940 to July 1945. Ted Heath talked of creating a GNU in the financial and industrial gloom of the 70s.

Well, not quite so fast, Michael.

As Malcolm recalls, Heath was running that hare in the aftermath of the second election of 1974 (and, therefore, of Heath’s second and terminal General Election defeat). But then Harold Wilson had a wafer-thin majority, but a confirmed mandate. When Heath went to the country in February 1974, his pitch had been exactly the opposite: only a Tory Government could “save” the British constitution.

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The trouble is: the ailment just does not go away.

There it was, in the Times Saturday Interview yesterday:

If things get worse will the public want a government of national unity? “People might start getting into that way of thinking,” he replies. “But I think that’s quite a long way down the track.”Would he join such a government? “I back the idea of approaching these problems in a much more collegiate way,” he says. “In a crisis people don’t want politicians telling their opponents they’re all a bunch of idiots.”

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“Might start thinking”?

Oh, dear, Vince. Dearie, dearie me. You’ve got it bad, and that ain’t good.

Time to watch nobody starts hack-sawing those railings.

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