Will Vince Cable be the first to leave Cameron’s cabinet?

The Business Secretary’s comments in the Sunday Telegraph seem to confirm reports that he isn’t a ha

Who will be the first Lib Dem member of cabinet to quit this coalition during the course of this "fixed-term" parliament? I know we've already had one Lib Dem departure: the former chief secretary to the Treasury David Laws, of course, resigned after just 17 days on the job. But he didn't really have a choice.

I'm talking about the possibility of a so-called principled resignation by a minister -- if you'll allow me to include the world "principle" in the same sentence as "minister". There are five Lib Dem members of the cabinet -- Nick Clegg (Deputy Prime Minister), Vince Cable (Business Secretary), Danny Alexander (Chief Secretary to the Treasury), Chris Huhne (Energy Secretary) and Michael Moore (Scottish Secretary).

"Calamity" Clegg ain't going anywhere any time soon. As the leader of the Lib Dems, he can't really resign from the cabinet without bringing down the whole coalition government. And so he's hitched his own political future, as well as his party's, to this Lib-Con coalition deal and he now has nowhere else to go. (I'm told John Denham spoke for the entire shadow cabinet when he told the Fabian Review last month that Labour would demand the head of Nick Clegg before doing any deal with the Liberal Democrats in the future.)

Danny Alexander, meanwhile, has become the face of the cuts. I can't see him going either. And Michael Moore? Would anyone notice if he left the cabinet? I'm not sure anyone really noticed when he joined it, after his Lib Dem precessor at the Scottish Office, Alexander, went off to replace Laws at George Osborne's side in HM Treasury.

Then there are Huhne and Cable, both former Labour men who are often described as being on the left of their party. A few months ago, I'd have put my money on Huhne, but the way in which he survived the revelations of his affair, and the subsequent break-up of his marriage, including the repeated attacks from the Daily Mail, suggests he is a man who has no plans to quit front-bench politics. It has become clear, listening to Ed Balls and Ed Miliband describe how keen Huhne was during the coalition negotiations with Labour to abandon the Lib Dems' manifesto pledge to delay spending cuts, that he has far fewer ideological objections to Osbornian austerity than some of us might have assumed in the not-too-distant past.

So that leaves St Vince of Cable, who keeps being humiliated by his Tory coalition partners. First, Cameron and Osborne kowtowed to Tory backbench concerns by limiting the rise in capital gains tax to 28 per cent, after the Business Secretary had accused the likes of David Davis and John Redwood of "reinventing the wheel" on CGT. Then, after Cable announced his interest in a graduate tax, a "senior Conservative source" promptly briefed the BBC that the government would reject such a proposal.

No wonder Vince looks so grumpy and down, or, as I wrote in a column a few weeks ago:

Vince Cable, the Business Secretary (who, in the words of one senior Labour politician who knows him well, is "semi-detached" from the government), is doing his best impression of Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men. He is said to mope around the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), while some Lib Dems believe he is setting himself up as a restraint inside the cabinet on his old enemy, George Osborne.

In a "candid" interview in today's Sunday Telegraph with Patrick Hennessy, Cable seems to confirm my view:

"People sometimes ask me, 'Are you having fun?' " he says. "No! It's hard work and it's tough, but it's important."

Hennessy writes:

This mantra of fairness is central to his beliefs. He is often cited as the Lib Dem most likely to quit the cabinet on a policy issue, so what are his "red line" issues that might provoke such an exit?

"I worked for some years to get us committed in our party to what we call fair taxes, lifting low-paid people out of tax, we got that in the coalition agreement and it was in the first Budget. So I'm content that that's being carried forward."

Later on Mr Cable returns to the subject of "fair taxes", when asked what he would consider a success after five years as Business Secretary. He even goes much further than Labour ministers ever dared by using the "R" word (redistribution) and spelling out exactly what he means -- "a tax system that means people at the bottom end of the scale pay less and at the top end of the scale pay more".

"Fair taxes" are not what we've got so far from this coalition government, with its "regressive" (© Institute for Fiscal Studies) emergency Budget in June. It's not fair to raise VAT, which hits the poorest hardest, while cutting corporation tax on the banks and leaving bankers' bonuses untaxed. And I have no doubt that the coalition's tax-and-spend changes are only going to get more unfair. How long will Vince Cable be able to stay in such a government while sticking to his self-professed social-democratic principles? Not that long, is my guess.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage