Vince Cable and the curse of the coalition

Look what’s happened to the poor Lib Dems . . .

Pity the poor Lib Dems. In May this year, after winning fewer seats than they did in 2005 under Charles Kennedy, the "third" party of British politics was offered a seat at the top table by David Cameron and the Conservatives. Those of us who suggested that joining a full coalition with the Tories would be a bad move, and even potentially self-destructive, were ignored and ridiculed. " 'Supply and confidence'? That's for wimps," seemed to be the refrain of the Orange Bookers.

The coalition, however, has not been kind to the Lib Dems. Consider the policy record. In-year spending cuts, tuition fees trebled, free schools, NHS reorganisation, Trident renewal, new nuclear power stations on the way and – in the new year – control orders likely to be retained in some shape or form. The party is down to 8 or 9 per cent in the opinion polls, depending on which polling organisation you choose to believe.

Then there is the fate of individual ministers. David Laws had to "out" himself as a homosexual and resign in the space of 17 days. Chris Huhne was "outed" as an adulterer and had to split with his wife. Nick Clegg, once the most popular politician in Britain, has seen effigies of himself burned on the streets of central London by the same students who cheered him as he arrived at their campuses in his yellow battle bus during the election campaign in April.

And then there is St Vince of Cable. Uncle Vince. The man who predicted the crash. The dancer. The father of the nation. I've had my fair share of run-ins with the Business Secretary, both in print and on air, but I'm astounded at what's been revealed in the past 24 hours. The revelations in the Telegraph about his private views on the coalition, the Tories, the child benefit cut, "Maoism" in NHS reform, his own "nuclear" resignation option and, of course, Rupert Murdoch have rightly dominated the headlines and given Cameron and Clegg a headache.

How did a man so admired by the media and the public at large, seemingly so wise and so restrained, make such a stupid mistake? Why on earth did he run his mouth to two "constituents" that he'd just bumped into in his surgery? Did he ever imagine that his cabinet career, begun at the age of 67, would be on the verge of an ignominous end within just eight months, as a result of a self-inflicted wound? There is talk of him doing a job swap with the (Tory) International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, and staying in the coalition cabinet but, personally, I don't see how he can survive these revelations. His insubordination, arrogance, indiscretion and misjudgement have embarrassed the coalition; his decision to brag about his "war" with the Murdoch empire, much as I admire and applaud the underlying sentiment, makes him unfit to be the Business Secretary who has to adjudicate in the inquiry into the Murdoch-owned NewsCorp takeover of BSkyB.

But, I have to say, covering coalition politics is so much fun. It certainly keeps us journos busy. Even in the run-up to Christmas, it seems, the intrigue, speculation and controversy in Westminster never end.

On a side note, however, and given the Telegraph claims to have more tapes of more loose-lipped Lib Dem ministers (Norman Baker? Sarah Teather? Huhne??), it's worth asking: was it ethical, let alone legal, for the Telegraph to carry out this "sting" operation? Whatever happened to the privacy that MPs expect inside their constituency surgeries? Where's the public-interest argument for undercover journos secretly recording the gossipy views of an MP in his constituency surgery? I can't see it (though, as I said, I don't deny I'm enjoying the political and media fallout from the sting).

As the Guardian's Michael White writes:

My feeling is that there was no public-interest justification for the Telegraph sting. It's not as if the tape proved that Vince likes cocaine or underage rent boys, both illegal activities and thus legitimate targets of press inquiry – as was the News of the World's Pakistani match-fixing probe, but not its hacking into royal or celeb gossip.

. . . Vince will not walk the plank. He might well be within his rights to find a means to sue or report the paper for breach of parliamentary privilege – which the sting surely was in interfering with his duties as Twickenham's MP. But politicians have long been cowed and rarely take such steps unless the case is watertight and then some.

Oh, and on a side, side note, you've got to both laugh and groan when you hear the response of Labour's Douglas Alexander to the Cable comments:

He was supposed to be on Strictly Come Dancing, but in fact he's dancing on thin ice.

Boom, boom! (Hat-tip: James Kirkup)

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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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.