In the harshest Liberal Democrat attack on the Conservatives at the party’s conference, the business secretary said the chancellor was “ideologically obsessed by [spending] cuts” because he wanted to destroy public services and the welfare state.
He described the Tories as “Ukip but without the beer” and said they had a “born-to-rule arrogance”.
The Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, had instructed his ministers to “brutalise” their coalition partners after Osborne outlined plans to freeze benefits for the working poor. The deputy prime minister accused David Cameron of seeking to please middle and higher income earners by “spraying around unfunded moon-on-a-stick-type promises” of tax cuts. Cameron has pledged to raise the threshold at which the 40% tax rate is paid from £41,900 to £50,000.
Cable accepted the invitation from Clegg as he accused the chancellor of dishonesty for suggesting he could eliminate the structural budget deficit by 2017-18 and then run an overall budget surplus, without raising taxes.
The business secretary said: “The truth is more taxes will be needed – to contribute to deficit reduction and also to address unacceptable inequalities. Any politician who tells you that the next government can balance the budget and avoid tax increases is lying to you.”
Cable said Osborne wanted to abandon the current approach to tackling the deficit, in which tax increases account for 20% of the fiscal consolidation, to allow him to destroy public services. He said: “The need for budget discipline mustn’t become an obsession with ever deeper cuts in public spending. Key public services have already been cut to the bone – from legal aid and local government to policing and defence.
“The Tories are ideologically obsessed by cuts because they see it as a way of destroying public service and the welfare state, which they detest. Let us be clear: the Tories’ proposal to take another £25bn or more out of welfare and unprotected government departments will do great harm to valuable services. To imagine otherwise is fantasy. I will categorically not go along with this.”
Cable was scathing about the Tories’ “absurd” net migration target, which is meant to bring the number of net arrivals down to the tens of thousands. The target will be missed because Britain has no control over EU immigration.
Mocking the Tories before Thursday’s Clacton byelection, expected to be won for Ukip by the former Tory MP Douglas Carswell, Cable said: “The Tories for their part are horribly torn between open economic liberalism and their inward-looking, Ukip-facing grassroots, who probably see Clacton-on-Sea as the new Constantinople – holding out against the alien hordes.
“So they say they want Britain to be ‘open for business’, ‘to win the global race’, then they try to close the borders to skills and talents that Britain needs by pursuing an absurd net migration target plucked out of the air and totally unenforceable.
“Overseas students, whose fees subsidise British students and earn £9bn a year for the UK, are discouraged and so go to the US or Australia instead. Firms who need specialist skills from Japan, India or the US have to climb piles of red tape far bigger than anything generated by Eurocrats in Brussels. We then train Chinese engineers and insist they go home just when British industry can make good use of them.”
Cable delighted the audience with his latest round of conference jokes as he mocked both main parties. He said: “The last two party conferences have helped us to understand our opponents better: the Tories are reinventing themselves as Ukip but without the beer, while the Labour party is offering us French socialism but without the sex.”
The business secretary teased Ed Miliband for forgetting to mention the deficit in his speech, and David Cameron for failing to live up to modernising pledges in early speeches. Recalling how William Gladstone had spoken for five and half hours without notes about the Bulgarian atrocities, Cable said: “As far as we know, he didn’t have to issue a statement the following day apologising for forgetting to mention Bulgaria or the atrocities.
“Others have sought to emulate him. You may remember the prime minister’s feat, which won him the Tory leadership, of memorising a 45-minute speech. He talked about the things he cared passionately about: embracing the underclass and saving the planet. You might recall the hoodies and the huskies.”
The business secretary ended with a joke at the expense of the Tories. “But, of course, there is always a warm welcome, isn’t there, for dodgy billionaires willing to make a large party donation for a game of tennis with Boris and Dave.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010