Mischievous Lib Dem chatter is a political gift for Osborne

Nothing is surer to mute Tory complaints about the Chancellor than wild speculation about Vince Cable as the alternative.

It is one of those peculiar permutations of coalition politics that George Osborne can consider himself very grateful to Lord Oakeshott, the Liberal Democrat peer and former Treasury spokesman, who has effectively called for the Chancellor to be sacked. Lord Oakeshott took to the airwaves (where he spends a considerable amount of his time) after the announcement of dire GDP data yesterday, to say that Osborne was performing as if on “work experience” and ought to be replaced by a more substantial figure. By that he meant Vince Cable, the business secretary, on whose behalf Oakeshott is often deemed to be speaking. Cable later on stirred the speculation further by suggesting immodestly that he “probably” would make a decent Chancellor, but this morning he publicly reined in his ambitions. He is a team player, he insisted, and Osborne leads the Treasury team.

There is, it has to be said, absolutely no chance of Cable being made Chancellor in this government. Really none at all. Zilch. The job would never go to a Lib Dem – its occupation by a Tory is part of the agreed fundamental architecture of the coalition. Cable will be lucky to stay in the cabinet at all in the next reshuffle. He has never been an ally of Nick Clegg in whose office he is seen as a grandstanding maverick and potential leadership threat. Even in opposition there was resentment of the way that Cable was held up as a mighty authority on economic matters – “St Vince” – poaching precious publicity from the leader. That feeling has since been exacerbated by a very personal irritation that Clegg has become the hated symbol of the u-turn on tuition fees, taking the full force of a vicious public and political backlash, when Cable ran the department that actually implemented the policy and yet escaped with hardly a scratch.

From the Tory point of view, Cable is a leftish fifth columnist. The recent revelation that he sends approving text messages to Ed Miliband will only reinforce the feeling among many Conservatives that the Business Secretary’s natural place is carping from the back benches.

But before the chatter about Cable started up, there were plenty of Tories willingly speculating about the need to move Osborne from the Treasury. Even quite loyal MPs were muttering about weaknesses in the heart of the machine and pointing accusing figures at Number 11 Downing Street. The charges are: the bungled budget, clumsy handling of the ensuing u-turns, suspicion that Osborne spends too much time in Number 10 plotting political attacks and not enough time running the economy, a broader feeling that there is no long-term strategy for winning an election other than hoping that Ed Miliband’s bubble bursts, over-reliance on short-term tricks and tactical manoeuvres, an obsessive personal animosity towards Ed Balls that is unseemly in one of the highest offices of state, a failure to develop a consistent message on what the government is doing to spur growth. There is a feeling on the Tory benches that Labour have been let back into the debate on the economy when they seemed wholly shut out of it a year ago.

In recent weeks I have heard William Hague, Michael Gove and Phillip Hammond all talked up by their fellow Tories as potential Chancellors. The surest way to kill that chatter is for a Lib Dem to pipe up and say Osborne should be sacked – and replaced with Vince, of all people.

There was never really any chance of Osborne being moved in the reshuffle. It would be an admission of economic failure on an epic scale and he is too close to Cameron. The Prime Minister is generally loyal to his friends – witness how hard it was for him to let go of Andy Coulson and how tenaciously he has clung to Jeremy Hunt. Of course in those cases there as an element of self-preservation. Losing high profile figures over phone hacking would have removed protective firewalls around Number 10. But it is also generally said of Cameron’s clubbable nature that he looks after his chums – which can, of course, be interpreted as a good a bad thing in politics depending on whether it is a mark of constancy or corruption. Cameron has ever fewer friends and Osborne is vital.

But it follows from that analysis that the Chancellor is practically unsackable. Yet he is also badly damaged and all those hostile whispers from his own side can’t be unwhispered. That leaves a feeling in Westminster at the start of the long summer recess that the Tory duamvirate’s strategy is essentially to build defences around the hole they are in and frantically keep digging.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition