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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Aussies and Kiwis can be “us” to Brexiteers - so why are EU citizens “them”?

Nostalgia for the empire means Brexiteers still see Australians and New Zealanders as "Brits abroad". 

There are many terrible things about Brexit, most of which I counted, mournfully, on the night of the referendum while hiding in a stairwell because I was too depressed to talk to anyone at the party I’d just run away from. But one of the biggest didn’t hit me until the next day, when I met a friend and (I’m aware how ridiculous this may sound) suddenly remembered she was Dutch. She has been here 20 years, her entire adult life, and it’s not that I thought she was British exactly; I’d just stopped noticing she was foreign.

Except now, post-referendum, she very definitely was and her right to remain in Britain was suddenly up for grabs. Eleven months on, the government has yet to clarify the matter for any of Britain’s three million European residents. For some reason, ministers seem to think this is OK.

If you attended a British university in the past 20 years, work in the NHS or the City – or have done almost anything, in large parts of the country – you’ll know people like this: Europeans who have made their lives here, launching careers, settling down with partners, all on the assumption that Britain was part of the EU and so they were as secure here as those with British passports. The referendum has changed all that. Our friends and neighbours are now bargaining chips, and while we may not think of them as foreigners, our leaders are determined to treat them as such. People we thought of as “us” have somehow been recast as “them”.

There’s a problem with bringing notions of “us” and “them” into politics (actually, there are many, which seems like a very good reason not to do it, but let’s focus on one): not everyone puts the boundary between them in the same place. Take the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. The sort of man one can imagine spent boyhood afternoons copying out Magna Carta for fun, Hannan spent decades campaigning for Brexit. Yet he’s not averse to all forms of international co-operation, and in his spare time he’s an enthusiastic advocate of CANZUK, a sort of Commonwealth-on-steroids in which there would be free movement ­between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

When pushed on the reasons this entirely theoretical union is OK, when the real, existing one we’re already in isn’t, he has generally pointed to things such as shared language, culture and war memorials. But the subtext, occasionally made text by less subtle commentators, is that, unlike those Continentals, natives of the other Anglo countries aren’t really foreign. An Australian who’s never set foot in Britain can be “us”; the German doctor who’s been here two decades is still “them”.

There’s a funny thing about Hannan, which I wouldn’t make a big thing of, except it seems to apply to a number of other prominent Leave and CANZUK advocates: for one so fixated on British culture and identity, he grew up a very long way from Britain. He spent his early years in Peru, on his family’s farm near Lima, or occasionally on another one in Bolivia. (You know how it is.) That’s not to say he never set foot in Britain, of course: he was sent here for school.

His bosom pal Douglas Carswell, who is currently unemployed but has in the past found work as both a Conservative and a Ukip MP, had a similarly exotic upbringing. He spent his childhood in Uganda, where his parents were doctors, before boarding at Charterhouse. Then there’s Boris Johnson who, despite being the most ostentatiously British character since John Bull, was born in New York and spent the early years of his life in New England. Until recently, indeed, he held US citizenship; he gave it up last year, ostensibly to show his loyalty to Britain, though this is one of those times where the details of an answer feel less revealing than the fact that he needed to provide one. Oh and Boris went to boarding school, too, of course.

None of these childhoods would look out of place if you read in a biography that it had happened in the 1890s, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they instilled in all of their victims a form of imperial nostalgia. I don’t mean that the Brexiteers were raised to believe they had a moral duty to go around the world nicking other people’s countries (though who knows what the masters really teach them at Eton). Rather, by viewing their homeland from a distance, they grew up thinking of it as a land of hope and glory, rather than the depressing, beige place of white dog poo and industrial strife that 1970s Britain was.

Seen through this lens, much of the more delusional Brexiteer thinking suddenly makes sense. Of course they need us more than we need them; of course they’ll queue up to do trade deals. Even Johnson’s habit of quoting bits of Latin like an Oxford don who’s had a stroke feels like harking back to empire: not to the Roman empire itself (he’s more of a late republican) but to the British one, where such references marked you out as ruling class.

There’s another side effect of this attitude. It enables a belief in a sort of British diaspora: people who are British by virtue of ancestry and ideology no matter how far from these shores they happen to live. In the 19th century, Australians and Canadians were just Brits who happened to be living abroad. What Britain absolutely wasn’t, however, was just another European country. So, in the Leavers’ minds, Aussies and Kiwis still get to be us. The millions of Europeans who have made Britain their home are still, unfortunately, them.

I’m sure these men bear Britain’s European citizens no ill-will; they have, however, fought for a policy that has left them in limbo for 11 months with no end in sight. But that’s the thing about Brexiteers, isn’t it? They may live among us – but they don’t share our values.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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