Leading article: An industrial-size economic challenge

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The Independent Online

Vince Cable has been one of the bookmakers' favourites to be the next minister to resign from the Cabinet. But on the basis of the Business Secretary's maiden public speech yesterday, he is not looking for the exit just yet.

At times this felt more like an Apologia Pro Vita Sua than a ministerial address. Mr Cable took the time to outline his philosophy of capitalism. He dismissed the notion that he is a closet socialist. He pledged his support for global trade, pointing out that he was writing critiques of protectionism back in the 1970s. When he said on regulation that "often the most useful thing governments can do is simply to get out of the way" it might have been John Redwood speaking. Mr Cable even mentioned his pride at having worked for Shell.

But he was also unapologetic about his convictions. He stressed his willingness to take on "cosy cartels" and his determination to ignore special pleading. And there was nothing in this speech to comfort the spivvier elements working in the financial services.

Mr Cable is someone who judges capitalism by its results, rather than seeing it as an end in itself: "The market economy has to deliver opportunity rather than constrain it. It has to spread wealth around, not concentrate it at the top or siphon it off to tax havens". And he has a clear vision of his own role in the system: "Being pro-business, pro-trade and competition doesn't mean being the voice of business".

It was all compelling – and intelligent – stuff. Listening to Mr Cable, the vulgar free market ideology of New Labour, whose history had taught it to view the private sector as axiomatically right about everything, began to feel like a distant memory.

There was a very good section in which Mr Cable distilled the proper purpose of modern industrial policy: "While we can't divine the future, we can recognise in a broad sense what Britain is good at and likely to become good at... We can and must allocate scarce public resources on the basis of evidence". Mr Cable's pledge to "redouble efforts" to get the publicly owned banks to re-open lending channels to struggling small businesses was especially welcome. The credit crunch is still a reality for many parts of our economy. And Mr Cable pithily demolished the argument of the banks that there is no demand for loans, pointing out that "if the bar is set too high, of course no one is willing to jump".

But there were hints of tension. Mr Cable spoke of his desire to reform the takeover panel to stop "unfettered short-term speculation" preying on uniquely vulnerable British businesses. He reiterated his trenchant views on the undesirability of mixing retail and commercial banking. There is plenty of scope for big battles within the coalition on such subjects. The strains between Mr Cable and the Chancellor, George Osborne, are already showing on capital gains tax.

On the crucial issue of public borrowing, Mr Cable said "I have been persuaded that early action on the deficit is essential". This hardly amounts to an enthusiastic endorsement of the coalition plans to take £6bn of demand out of the economy in the present financial year. And when he argued that "going forward, policy must be driven always by the same rational calculation of economic risk and benefit", it sounded almost like a warning. The trouble is that Mr Cable's official remit is the micro, rather than the macro economic world. If the Treasury gets the big judgements wrong, his efforts to rebalance the British economy and promote long-term growth risk being in vain. Mr Cable's success or failure will depend, to a large extent, on the influence he can bring to bear outside his department. We know that Mr Cable is a formidable thinker and a terrific writer. But what he now needs to show is that he can be as effective as his predecessor in the Business Department, Lord Mandelson, at getting his own way.