Lib-Dems slaying Dragons?

I’m getting positively embarrassed as I watch Lib-Dem Ministers coming out with so much conservative common sense. Of course I know that the reality of office has the effect of clarifying minds wonderfully, but still their conversion is practically Damascene. I take some comfort as I contemplate the inevitable impotent fury of the Lib-Dems’ Sandals-and-Sarongs brigade at this swing to the right.

Even before the election, the Lib-Dems had their proposed £10,000 tax threshold, which as Maurice Saatchi has frequently told us, ought to have been a text-book Conservative commitment. Then we had David Laws coming up with an admirably conservative approach at the Treasury, before his unfortunate defenestration. He seems to have been ideal for the job, the right man at the right time, and both the government and the British people have lost a real asset. I know that Nick Clegg asked the public to vote on which laws they wanted rid of, but I don’t think he had David Laws in mind.

Then last Thursday at the Cass business school, Vince Cable was impeccable. He will cut spending. He will slash regulation. He will take a cluster-bomb to the Quangocracy. Indeed he has already axed or merged several Quangoes, and will continue to do so. Well done Vince, say I, and about time too.

And he came up with a phrase to bring joy to the hearts not only of conservatives, but of Neo-Cons and Fox News too. “Sometimes the best thing that government can do is to get out of the way”. OK, maybe we’d rather he’d said “Usually” instead of “Sometimes”, but let’s not quibble.

Funnily enough, I had been saying much the same thing, only rather less succinctly, the day before in Brussels in the parliament’s Unemployment Committee. “There is little we in this parliament can do to create jobs”, I’d said, “But there is a great deal we could do to remove the disincentives to employment”. See a video-clip of my three-minute speech here.

And herein lies the difficulty. Vince Cable aspires to help the British economy by slashing red-tape and unnecessary regulation – yet something like three quarters of the regulation, and regulatory costs, faced by British employers comes from Brussels, and much of that from the very Unemployment Committee on which I sit – and which is determined to respond to the current down-turn with more welfare provision, more “job protection”, more damaging labour market rigidity. And the Lib-Dems instinctively treat the EU as a sacred cow, above challenge or criticism. (To be fair to Nick Clegg, he does recognise failings in the EU – he’s just not prepared to do anything substantive to address them).

A British deregulation initiative which ignores the main source of gratuitous and overbearing regulation will hardly be worth the paper it’s written on. Unless Vince Cable will take on Brussels, the tangle of red-tape will retain its stranglehold on the British economy, and employment and competitiveness will continue to suffer. If you’re Dragon-Slaying, Vince, the real Dragon is over there.

So one cheer for Vince Cable for the rhetoric. Two cheers if he actually makes the effort. But we’ll save the third cheer for the day he shows a real willingness to challenge the torrent of nonsense from the Berlaymont Building (and the European parliament’s Unemployment Committee).

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