U.K. Business Secretary Vince Cable backed Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg as the Liberal Democrat leadership won a vote on economic policy at the party’s conference to quell suggestions of a clash between the two.
Clegg was forced to deny that there was a “feud” among the party’s senior members after Cable expressed sympathy for a move by party activists to amend the motion to criticize the government’s austerity program. Cable arrived in the hall in Glasgow, Scotland, in the middle of the debate and voted with the party leadership. Morning newspaper headlines had suggested a rift between Clegg and Cable, the party’s senior economic thinker.
“The only people who will welcome what we do today if we adopt these amendments are George Osborne and Ed Balls,” Clegg told delegates, referring to the chancellor of the exchequer from the Liberal Democrat’s Tory coalition partners and the opposition Labour Party’s economic spokesman. “We were brave last year; be brave again.”
Clegg addressed the conference to oppose amendments to the motion that effectively called on the party to oppose the coalition’s plans to continue austerity measures to reduce the deficit. Cable’s office last night said he supported some elements of the amendments, without saying which parts. It didn’t say whether or how he intended to vote.
“There isn’t some great feud going on,” Clegg told BBC Television’s “Breakfast” program. “There’s a good healthy democratic debate going on in this good healthy democratic party, the Liberal Democrats, where we actually have these open debates.”
Even though he’s a senior minister in Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition, Cable has frequently questioned the government’s austerity and other economic policies. A survey of Liberal Democrat local lawmakers for the BBC by ComRes Ltd. suggested Cable was the most popular candidate to take over the party leadership should Clegg step down.
Delegates speaking during the debate demonstrated support in the party for Cable’s position as they warned against the party allying itself too closely with the Conservatives.
“We don’t want to go into the next election tied onto the coat tails of George Osborne,” one delegate, Linda Jack, told the conference. “If we’re not going to distinguish ourselves from the Tories, the question ‘what are the Liberal Democrats for?’ is a valid one.”
David Grace, a delegate from Cambridge, questioned the party leadership’s theme for the week, which has been to repeat that it has acted as a brake on Tory policies including attempts to erode workers’ rights and cut welfare benefits.
Instead of fighting the 2015 election on the grounds that Liberal Democrats had reined in the Conservatives, “we need to fight the election on the basis that they stopped us doing even better things,” Grace said.
Cable suggested last week the government should abandon its Help to Buy program, designed to let cash-strapped buyers purchase a home with a deposit of as little as 5 percent, arguing it risks creating a “bubble” in the housing market. Clegg said yesterday the U.K. is “nowhere near” such a housing bubble, and that the Bank of England and the government have the tools to prevent one.
“What we’re saying today is there are certain bits of how we approach the economy where we have to hold our nerve, we have to just carry on with the painstaking job of filling the black hole in the public finances,” Clegg said. “We must protect the right of the Bank of England to continue to play its part independently in keeping interest rates low.”
Activists rejected amendments calling for greater support for measures to raise employment and growth and a rewriting of the Bank of England’s mandate. That amendment called on the central bank to set monetary policy “to aid growth, reduce the unemployment rate to below 6 percent, creating at least a million jobs, and to address weak income growth.”
Party President Tim Farron told delegates to press on with the coalition’s economic policy or risk the Conservatives, who he said want to add “mean-spirited parsimony to necessary austerity” taking all the credit for its success.
The economic strategy “is good for the country, good for the Liberal Democrats, so long as we don’t at the 11th hour choose to disown it,” Farron said. “Be proud of what we’ve done, dare to go further, stick to your guns.”