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.

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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution