Andrew Grice: PM lags behind in rush to embrace moral markets

Inside Westminster

Related Topics

Vince Cable has felt under siege in recent weeks as other politicians try to invade his turf. On Tuesday, the Business Secretary will unveil the Government's measures to tackle excessive executive pay and change the culture of company boardrooms.

Amid rising public anger about corporate greed, politicians of all colours have queued up to call for responsible, popular capitalism and "moral markets". Not that we would expect them to advocate irresponsible, unpopular capitalism and immoral markets, of course.

Mr Cable even had to fend off a raid by his own party leader. Nick Clegg "shook the tree" to see which of Mr Cable's measures he could announce in his own speech on capitalism this week. Mr Clegg was handed only a twig – his call for a "John Lewis economy".

Mr Cable's defence of his territory also explains why David Cameron's long-awaited foray into the debate was short on policy prescriptions. The Business Secretary insisted on providing those next week. Downing Street had sweated for weeks over the speech Mr Cameron delivered on Thursday. Although it seemed to lack hard policies, it was more revealing than it looked.

Mr Cameron's address was a much more passionate defence of markets than Labour had expected. He did not filch any of Ed Miliband's ideas. While markets had to be fair as well as free, Mr Cameron insisted that "open markets and free enterprise can actually promote morality". The speech was refreshingly honest; Mr Cameron did not pretend to be something he is not.

The Prime Minister argued that the Conservatives are best placed to make markets work fairly because they understand and believe in capitalism. There is now clear water between him and Mr Miliband, who claimed this week that centre-left parties are better placed to meet the challenge – provided they face fiscal reality and find new ways for governments to take on "predatory practices and vested interests". This seems optimistic. At a time when Europe's economy is in turmoil, 24 of the 27 EU governments are run by the centre-right, encouraging the theory that voters turn to conservative politicians in hard times.

However, Mr Miliband can feel vindicated as he has dragged Mr Cameron on to his ground. When the Labour leader made his "producer versus predator" speech last September, Mr Cameron and George Osborne rubbed their hands with glee about how left-wing it was. Yet the opinion polls and the more far-sighted Tory MPs have forced them to enter the debate and reform the system to head off the impression that they are in business to defend their friends in the City, who provide about half of the Tories' donations.

Mr Miliband won a similar tactical victory by identifying Britain's "squeezed middle", which is now at the heart of the political debate. The votes of this group will almost certainly decide the next election.

I suspect the "squeezed middle" will be more interested in what politicians offer to help them rather than their thoughts on capitalism. After a wobbly few weeks, Mr Miliband got back into his stride as he tackled the trade unions when they reacted angrily to a warning by Ed Balls that public-sector pay restraint must continue.

Mr Miliband needs more of the same. Labour is only at first base on winning back economic credibility. Voters will not be much interested in Mr Miliband's plans to change the rules of the economic system until they judge Labour credible enough to run it.

The Prime Minister is not a natural revolutionary. As Labour has taken to reminding us, he is the son of a stockbroker. The Liberal Democrats have found him less "open for business" than Mr Osborne when it comes to reforming the banks and the boardroom. Mr Clegg and Mr Cable had to fight hard to stop Downing Street introducing barmy proposals to limit flexible working by Adrian Beecroft which would have made a mockery of the Government's goal to be the most family-friendly ever.

The campaign to strip Sir Fred Goodwin, the former Royal Bank of Scotland boss, of his knighthood offered Mr Cameron an easy headline, a convenient diversion from tricky matters on his watch like the RBS bonuses to be announced soon. The voters will be watching to see if the reality matches his rhetoric.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Pentagon has suggested that, since the campaign started, some 10,000 Isis fighters in Iraq and Syria have been killed  

War with Isis: If US wants to destroy the group, it will need to train Syrians and Iraqis

David Usborne
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy