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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder