Cable positions himself as the man for a Lib Dem-Labour coalition

Forecasting a hung parliament at the next election, the Business Secretary looked to life after the Tories.

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.

Vince Cable gives his speech to the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496