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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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.