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.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories