Vince Cable’s speech to Lib Dem conference was just about on-message as regard to the coalition’s economic strategy. We need the state, he said; we need a demand stimulus, he said; we are taking advantage of low interest rates and borrowing more, he said. But he didn’t quite call for more borrowing for an immediate fiscal boost.
In fact, any Lib Dem wanting to call for a departure from George Osborne’s Plan A will now find it very difficult to do so after the party conference voted overwhelmingly in favour of the current fiscal plan.
This morning, delegates were asked to vote for a motion backing the “difficult decisions taken by the coalition government” and calling for the government to “do everything possible to stimulate growth within its fiscal mandate” (emphasis mine).
Linda Jack, one of the party activists who voted against the coalition in the first place, tried to scupper this by moving an amendment calling for the government to rip up its plans and pump money into the economy.
It was a key test for the leadership. If delegates voted for the amendment, it would mean the official Lib Dem position would be to directly oppose the most important element of what the party is doing in government.
Party officials knew it was important, and dragged a succession of high-profile MPs and ministers up to speak against the amendment. Tim Farron, the party president and one of the leading lights of the party’s left wing, called the amendment “crackers”.
In the end, the leadership won and the amendment was resoundingly defeated – not least because, as one official pointed out, all those who support a Ballsite stimulus have probably left the party already. One adviser to Nick Clegg claimed the vote was a huge moment: “We’ve defeated the Trots!” It wasn’t quite Neil Kinnock’s defeat of Militant Tendency, but it will have lasting consequences.
Now, those MPs who have been calling for a change in economic policy in recent weeks – John Pugh and Annette Brooke to name two – will find it difficult to do so, knowing the party has rejected that course of action. And if Vince does decide to go one step further and call for Plan B, he will now find his hands somewhat tied.