Vince Cable used his speech to the Lib Dem conference to present himself as a free radical, a man who was prepared to work with the Tories and Labour when they were right and to criticise them when they were wrong. He restated the original rationale for the coalition - to provide national government at a time of "permanent crisis" - but added that he made no apology for maintaining "good communications with politicians across the spectrum", before motioning as if he had just received a text, "Please Ed, not now, this is not the time". Cable's political motives became clear at the end of the speech, when he suggested that the most likely outcome of the next election was another hung parliament (the British people, he said, would not want to "entrust their future to any one party"). If you want someone who can lead the Lib Dems into coalition with Labour, he implied, I'm the man for the job; messrs Miliband and Balls already having ruled out working with Nick Clegg.
Throughout the speech, the Business Secretary was careful to combine attacks on both parties with references to those areas where they could work together. So he derided the Tory "headbangers" who wanted a "hire-and-fire culture" and the "backwoodsmen" who opposed a mansion tax, but offered a strong endorsement of George Osborne's deficit reduction plan and declared that he had "considerable personal sympathy" for the Chancellor, who was attacked both for "borrowing too much" and "borrowing too little". In a notable jibe at Andrew Mitchell's expense, which was left out of the original text, he also joked that he was a "mere pleb". As for Labour, he mocked Ed Balls's plan to eliminate the deficit over seven years, rather than the coaliton's six ("wow!"), but nodded to Ed Miliband's agenda when he called for a culture of "responsible capitalism".
Cable, who has openly declared that he is prepared to stand for the Lib Dem leadership, was astutue enough to avoid anything resembling disloyalty to Nick Clegg, praising the Deputy PM early on for proving that "coalitions work". But he also deftly positioned himself as a social liberal ("this is no time for the state to be stepping back"), who, unlike Clegg, continued to command respect across the centre-left. While conservative columnists write paeans of praise to the Lib Dem leader (see Boris Johnson's piece in today's Daily Telegraph), Cable reminded activists of a Telegraph poll showing that he was the cabinet minister who Tory activists most wanted to evict from the government. The message to the party's base - "I'm one of you" - could not have been clearer.