Labour turns on Cable over "capitulation" to the Tories

Chuka Umunna says reforms to employment law are an attack on workers' rights.

Last week, Vince Cable was eulogised by Ed Balls as the Lib Dem who could no almost wrong. "Vince has distinguished himself by always making the argument about what's right for Britain," he said, as he beamed at the Business Secretary, sat beside him on Andrew Marr's sofa.

But Balls's colleague Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary, isn't feeling so charitable towards Cable. Earlier this morning, Umunna took to Twitter to criticise the Business Secretary's reforms to employment law as an attack on workers' rights. He added that Ming Campbell, who has questioned Cable's textual relations with Labour, should worry more about "Cable's capitulation to Fallon, Hancock and co. on employment law"

While Cable will today formally reject calls for the introduction of "no-fault dismissal" or fire-at-will (a proposal that emanated from Tory donor Adrian Beecroft's now-infamous report on employment law), he will announce a significant cut in the cap on unfair dismissal payouts. The current £72,000 limit is expected to be reduced to an employee's annual salary, or another lower figure. In addition, employment tribunals will be sped up, so that costs are reduced and weak cases thrown out more swiftly. Though you wouldn't know it from the right's response, 80 per cent of Beecroft's recommendations have been adopted or put out to consultation.

Continuing his assault on Cable, Umunna declared, "We're not in a recession because of the rights our constituents have at work - its cos of the govt's failed economic plan." The Business Secretary, of course, wouldn't disagree. During his appearance on Marr last week, he sagely observed, "The problem of growth is that we have a very serious shortage of demand. It's nothing to do with those supply side measures basically. It's a demand issue."

As a result, suspicion persists among the Tories that Cable's heart isn't really in it. But whatever the Business Secretary's true feelings, a third successive quarter of recession persuaded the coalition partners to strike a grand bargain on growth. You give us supply-side reform, and we'll give you a small business bank (a measure that allowed Cable to hail the end of "pure laissez-faire" economics).

Umunna's decision to respond with an attack of rare ferocity suggests that not everyone in Labour is so keen to lure the Business Sectetary from the Tories' clutches.

Business Secretary Vince Cable will announce reforms to employment law today. Photograph: Getty Image.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Seven things we learnt from the Battle for Number 10

Jeremy Corbyn emerged the better as he and Theresa May faced a live studio audience and Jeremy Paxman. 

1. Jeremy Corbyn is a natural performer

The Labour leader put in a bravura performance in both the audience Q&A and in his tussle with Jeremy Paxman. He is often uncomfortable at Prime Minister’s Questions but outside of the Commons chamber he has the confidence of a veteran of countless panels, televised discussions and hustings.

If, like me, you watched him at more hustings in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016 than you care to count, this performance wasn’t a surprise. Corbyn has been doing this for a long time and it showed.

2. And he’s improving all the time

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t quite perfect in this format, however. He has a temper and is prone to the odd flash of irritation that looks bad on television in particular. None of the four candidates he has faced for the Labour leadership – not Yvette Cooper, not Andy Burnham, not Liz Kendall and not Owen Smith – have managed to get under his skin, but when an interviewer has done so, the results have never been pretty for the Labour leader.

The big fear going into tonight for Corbyn was that his temper would get the better of him. But he remained serene in the fact of Paxman’s attempts to rile him until quite close to the end. By that point, Paxman’s frequent interruptions meant that the studio audience, at least, was firmly on Corbyn’s side.

3. Theresa May was wise to swerve the debates

On Jeremy Corbyn’s performance, this validated Theresa May’s decision not to face him directly. He was fluent and assured, she was nervous and warbly.  It was a misstep even to agree to this event. Anyone who decides their vote as far as TV performances tonight will opt for Jeremy Corbyn, there’s no doubt of that.

But if she does make it back to Downing Street it will, in part, be because in one of the few good moves of her campaign she chose to avoid debating Corbyn directly.

4.…but she found a way to survive

Theresa May’s social care U-Turn and her misfiring campaign mean that the voters don’t love her as they once did. But she found an alternate route through the audience Q&A, smothering the audience with grimly dull answers that mostly bored the dissent out of listeners.

5. Theresa May’s manifesto has damaged her. The only question is how badly

It’s undeniable now that Theresa May’s election campaign has been a failure, but we still don’t know the extent of the failure. It may be that she manages to win a big majority by running against Jeremy Corbyn. She will be powerful as far as votes in the House of Commons but she will never again be seen as the electoral asset she once was at Westminster.

It could be that she ends up with a small majority in which case she may not last very much longer at Downing Street. And it could be that Jeremy Corbyn ends up defeating her on 8 June.

That the audience openly laughed when she talked of costings in her manifesto felt like the creaking of a rope bridge over a perilous ravine. Her path may well hold until 8 June, but you wouldn’t want to be in her shoes yourself and no-one would bet on the Conservative Party risking a repeat of the trip in 2022, no matter what happens in two weeks’ time.

6. Jeremy Paxman had a patchy night but can still pack a punch

If Jeremy Paxman ever does produce a collected Greatest Hits, this performance is unlikely to make the boxset. He tried and failed to rouse Jeremy Corbyn into anger and succeeded only in making the audience side with the Labour leader. So committed was he to cutting across Theresa May that he interrupted her while making a mistake.

He did, however, do a better job of damaging Theresa May than he did Jeremy Corbyn.  But not much better.

7. Theresa May may have opposed Brexit, but now she needs it to save her

It’s not a good sign for the sitting Prime Minister that the audience laughed at many of her statements. She had only one reliable set of applause lines: her commitment to getting the best Brexit deal.

In a supreme irony, the woman who opposed a Leave vote now needs the election to be a referendum re-run if she is to secure the big majority she dreams of. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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