Vince Cable settles his scores

Business Secretary takes aim at Steve Hilton, the Murdoch empire and Gordon Brown in his conference

Vince Cable's speech at the Lib Dem conference (read it in full here) felt like a settling of scores. The Business Secretary took aim at the Murdoch empire, Gordon Brown and even David Cameron's policy adviser Steve Hilton. Of the latter, who once proposed abolishing maternity leave, he declared: "What I will not do though is provide cover for ideological descendents of those who sent children up chimneys. Panic in financial markets won't be stopped by scrapping maternity rights."

His attack on the economic right continued. He derided the Lafferites who believe that cutting taxes on the rich will "miraculously" generate new revenue, and asked what "solar system" those who depicted his mansion tax as an attack on "ordinary middle class owners" were living in. But the biggest applause came when, in reference to News International, Cable spoke of his pride that "we never compromised ourselves in that company."

Yet while Cable threw plenty of red meat to the Lib Dem faithful, he combined this with a robust but distinctive defence of George Osborne's deficit reduction strategy. In pursuing fiscal contraction, the Lib Dems, he said, were "following in the footsteps of Stafford Cripps and Roy Jenkins in Britain and, abroad, the Canadian Liberals, Scandinavian Social Democrats and Clinton Democrats in the USA." In a swipe at messrs Balls and Miliband, he added: "They understood, unlike today's Labour Party - that the progressive agenda of centre left parties cannot be delivered by bankrupt Governments." The word that blows Cable's argument apart is "bankrupt". Britain was never on the "brink of bankruptcy" and debt as a percentage of GDP is still lower now than it was for most of the 20th century. Hardly ideal, but then as Cable himself argued: "[W]e now face a crisis that is the economic equivalent of war."

He was admirably frank about Britain's economic woes, insisting pace Cameron that there are no "sunny uplands", only "grey skies". Indeed, whether you favour Keynesian stimulus (as the NS does) or Hayekian austerity, the truth is that the UK faces a permanently reduced level of growth (the reason why the structural deficit is £12bn higher-than-expected).

In an attempt to distinguish himself from Osborne (who was not mentioned by name), Cable made repeated references to the government's "stimulus" programme and to the need for "fairness", what he called a "more responsible capitalism". And he put some red water between himself and Nick Clegg by vowing to reduce income inequality (a concept Clegg has suggested is outdated). But for all his undoubted sincerity, Cable is a member of a government that is presiding over anaemic growth and that is likely to leave office with poverty and inequality higher than when it entered. When the time comes to assess the coalition's record, Cable's progressive rheotric will offer scant comfort.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.