By Paul Goodman
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The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury gets in early before the coming Liberal Democrat conference, writing in the Sun this morning under the headline "We must tackle our economy and mend our broken society." The piece has three main messages as his party prepares to gather in Birmingham.
- The party should commit itself to its partnership with the Conservatives. "…While it is essential that our identity is not lost, it would be a disaster if the Lib Dems were simply to evolve into an internal Opposition.We will best serve our country as constructive front-seat drivers, not as grumpy passengers who are merely looking forward to the end of a bumpy ride.
- The 50p rate should go. "Entrepreneurs will stay in Britain because they know that — unlike Ed Miliband — the Coalition believes the 50 per cent income tax rate should only be temporary." Laws cleverly wraps the LibDem policy of raising tax thresholds for poorer voters into his next sentence, claiming that it's the public's "top priority", but his words are crafted to echo George Osborne's own on the top rate.
- The Coalition must boost growth as well as cut debt. "On the economy, the Lib Dems are totally committed to "Plan A" — wiping out Labour's debt mountain…The slowdown in the world economy makes our task tougher. So we will act further to support growth by removing burdens from business, working with the Bank of England to keep cheap money flowing through to businesses and mortgage payers, and stimulating investment."
The article is a reminder of Laws's pivotal position: in the earliest days of the Government, he was a living symbol of why a coalition between his party and the Conservatives could work, given his economically and socially liberal views. His resignation over his expenses removed this natural link between the two parties.
Whether one believes that he should return to office or not, there's little doubt that Cameron and Clegg will bring him back as soon as they can, if he is willing to return. And since this is so, the Coalition should make the very best use of him possible. Note the reference in his piece to removing burdens from business. Who in the Cabinet is striving to do so?
Not George Osborne, if only because the Treasury's main responsibilities lie elsewhere. Not Vince Cable, who can't justifiably make the same claim: if his Department isn't straining every day to slash regulation and boost competitiveness, there's no point in it being there at all. But the Business Secretary's main interest is bashing banks, not helping to create jobs.
ConservativeHome recently published a growth manifesto from think-tanks. Its ideas included cutting corporation tax faster, ending unilateral carbon policies, regionalising the minimum wage, repealing excessive employment laws, reforming competition policy, and exempting small business from employment legislation altogether.
A free market Liberal Democrat is best placed to drive such a programme through this unwieldy coalition. There are very few around, and none of Laws's quality. In particular, he's as well-placed as anyone to persuade his colleagues that the speed of the carbon reduction drive is damaging growth – and, therefore, his party's own chances of being able to claim success in 2015.
David Cameron has limited room for manoevre in relation to Liberal Democrat Cabinet Ministers. For example, he couldn't sack Cable without rocking the Coalition. But he could rush Laws back into the Cabinet Office or elsewhere, perhaps at the time of the Chancellor's autumn statement, to take charge of a massive deregulation drive. If he doesn't, it may well not happen.