Craig Barrett 11.59am
As the conference season close, a short mental review of politically offensive soundbites leaves one that jars with me above all others. Not, as Nik and I wrote, Ed Miliband’s schizophrenic tax regime; not the fact that the Lib Dems felt the need to paint the Tories as the villains of the piece (contrast that with our praise for their commitment), not the awkwardness surrounding the Human Rights Act.
It is Vince Cable’s statement that the biggest regret of his time in charge of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is that he has failed to curb bankers’ bonuses.
Cable can only be playing to the crowd. To an extent, that is what a party conference is about but when you have the ministerial profile that Cable does, words should be chosen more carefully. We are all aware that he is a loose cannon, e.g. his statements about “war” with News International, but I remain of the view that his reputation as some kind of economic visionary is ill-deserved. The joke about him having predicted 50 of the last 35 recessions is a fair one.
John Denham, one of the more effective members of the shadow cabinet, summarised the offensive nature of Cable’s regret rather well:
“Vince Cable says his biggest regret from the last year is not tackling bank bonuses but it should be his complete failure to support business, create jobs, help small and medium enterprises to access finance and to build on the growth he inherited from Labour.”
We can dispute the final part of the sentence but the rest is true. Cable should not be posturing on the subject of pay, he should be gunning for growth.
The clue is in the real title that Cable holds, the one that existed before it was changed by New Labour: he is the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and President of the Board of Trade. It is within his remit to regulate industry or rather, to de-regulate it.
Unfortunately, as Camilla Cavendish notes in The Times (£) this morning, companies appear to have an ever-increasing regulatory burden, arising I assume from Cable’s misguided belief that he needs to act to prevent rather than to create.
Whilst bonuses may be offensive to many in society, what is more offensive is a total absence of growth and a deeper recession. Nothing rewards success like excess and our economy needs to remain competitive. That must incorporate the ability to reward people appropriately - this is symptomatic of the need, as far as is possible within the realms of sanity, to let industry get on with being industrious. Compliance costs money and when cash is tight, an ever-increasing amount of red-tape makes a precarious economy start to teeter on the edge of the proverbial precipice.
In my legal field, we recognise the fundamentally asphyxiating nature of a narrow interpretation of the egregious new Bribery Act - a piece of legislation currently preventing effective marketing. To take another example, the thoroughly un-British Working Time Directive has created less experienced junior doctors in our hospitals. These, amongst many others, are burdens that urgently need to be examined to see if they genuinely add anything or are simply exercises in collating forms.
There is a solution. Vince Cable is the least effective member of the Cabinet; whether because he temperamentally unsuited to government or whether he is more interested in his own reputation is entirely a matter for him.
At the same time, there is a man who it could be argued is in the wrong job, as events of this week have shown. Step forward the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke.
The old cliché about him being the man who got us out of recession last time still holds true. He really understands what it takes to get things moving, having presided over a strong economic recovery as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1990s, but also having been a minister at the Department of Trade and Industry. He shadowed the business brief in Opposition and his “one in, one out” approach to regulation would make a dramatic difference to businesses who must despair at each latest edict from BIS.
Famous for his relaxed attitude to life and politics, a Ken-driven relaxation of red-tape would get our nation trading again.
Follow Craig on Twitter @mrsteeduk