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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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.