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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Why Philip Green's fall should bring down the honours system – but won't

Sir Shifty may fall in disgrace, but our ridiculous system will endure. No matter what's happening in the rest of politics.

Sir Philip Green’s Efficiency Review (2010) is his Das Kapital and it is still, happily, online. You can, if you wish, smirk at his recommendations to the government, which were solicited by David Cameron, I imagine, because when he stood next to Green he looked not like a 17th-century woodcut but like a tall, handsome semi-aristocrat.

“There is no motivation to save money or to treat cash ‘as your own’,” Green grumbles, before complaining, “There are inconsistent commercial skills across departments.” I am weeping with laughter at the whole report. But I’m not one of those BHS employees watching their pension ­vanish as the hideous cushions, throws and bedspreads pile up on the Green family yacht Lionheart. I instantly rename the yacht 14-Day Return Policy No More.

The days when Green could write efficiency reviews for people to ignore are gone. It is said that he could lose his knighthood, because that would be exciting and pointless. If so, I hope the ceremony features the formal rending of a garment from the BHS sale bin – perhaps a torn sock will be flung at his head? The Queen will not be happy, because de-knighting makes the ancient system of patronage look as ridiculous as it really is. Do intercessors between man and God make mistakes? Would they raise a man the Daily Mail now calls “Sir Shifty”? (I checked whether there was a Sir Shifty among the knights of the Round Table who flogged the Holy Grail to a passing tinker. There was not.)

Lord Melbourne advised Queen Victoria not to attempt to make her husband, Albert, a king, for if the people knew that they could make kings, they might unmake them. Green will discover this in his tiny way. But the elites should not hide their baubles. One fallen knight will not destroy the system (and I cannot think that Green will take £571m from his Lionheart cushion budget to save his knighthood by replenishing the BHS pension fund, because a knighthood is, in essence, just a tiny Bentley Continental that you wear over your nipple). One fallen knight should destroy the system but it won’t, because human conceit and docility are without end. Green will be shunned. Nothing will change.

One might have hoped that the Brexit vote would have alerted Cameron to the abyss between the electorate and the elected. (Even Alastair Campbell, chomping against Brexit, seemed to forget that he was as complicit in the alienation of voters as anyone else: government by sofa, teeth and war.) The response was glib, even for Cameron, a man so glib that I sometimes think he is a reflection in a pond. Brexit hit him like someone caught in a mild shower without an umbrella. He hummed at the lesson that history dealt him; he hummed as he left his page. It was the hum of the alpha Etonian caught out in a mistake, yes, but it was still a bloody hum.

His next act was to increase pay-offs to favoured courtiers against civil service advice and at public expense; then, it was reported, he nominated his spin doctor Craig Oliver and his former spin doctor Gabby Bertin for peerages, because the upper house needs more PRs. He has learned nothing. I wish him a relaxed retirement in which he will, apparently, write his four-page memoir, David Cameron: My Struggle (sub-subtitle: Eton Mess?). I hope he does not attempt to deny “the prosciutto affair”, because there is no need. It was not true. It was too pure a metaphor.

So the honours system, an essential part of our alienating politics, alongside dodgy donors, duck houses and George Galloway, endures in its worst form as conventional politics fails. It is a donkey sanctuary for political friends and Bruce Forsyth. I am not suggesting that everyone who has been honoured is dreadful – some lollipop ladies deserve to be patronised with an OBE (when there is no E any more), I am sure, and the lords, some of whom are excellent, are the functional opposition now – but the system can no longer be defended by the mirth potential of watching politicians ponder what light-entertainment celebrities might swing a marginal before being posthumously accused of rape. We must find something better before the house burns down. Perhaps a robust parliamentary democracy?

The problem is best expressed by the existence of a specialist consultancy called Awards Intelligence, which engages in “VIP brand-building” by soliciting awards. It sells “awards plans” from £795, which I could well imagine Philip Green perusing as he bobs about aboard Lionheart, were it not too late. The Awards Intelligence website tells us so much, though obliviously, about the narcissism of modern politics that I am tempted to reproduce it in full. But I will merely report that it asks:

"Did you know that you can join the House of Lords on a part-time basis as an Independent Crossbench Peer or a political peer affiliated to one of the main politial parties – even if you have ongoing work, family or community commitments!"

The message from Awards Intelligence, which boasts of a 50 per cent success rate, is clear: the legislature is part-time, it exists to “instil trust, add credibility and provide a platform for you to have your say” – and it can’t always spell “political”.

Sir Shifty and Awards Intelligence do not constitute the worst crisis in the history of honours, dreadful though they are. During the First World War the royal German cousins were stripped of their garters, so that British soldiers would not have to kill men of higher rank. But it is time for the Queen to stop pinning toys on nipples. They are part of a political system sweeping us, swiftly, towards the night.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue