In defence of Vince Cable

That was the week that was . . .

During the coalition talks and after the general election in May, Vince Cable addressed a meeting of Liberal Democrats and told them that "my heart beats on the left". What he meant, of course, was that he was closer to Labour than to the Conservatives, even to David Cameron's liberal Conservatives.

He was still then just about the nation's favourite Vince, a self-styled "free radical" and economics sage. All the same, he urged his fellow MPs to follow him into coalition with the Tories, because, as he told me when I interviewed him in September at a fringe event at the Liberal Democrats' conference in Liverpool, he was "an enthusiastic deficit hawk", and believed that the deficit had to be cut faster and harder than Labour proposed, with some "in-year cuts". He also spoke to me about the pressures of collective responsibility.

Now, all these months later, it's clear just how damaged the Lib Dems have been by their association with the Tories. They are as low as 8 per cent in some polls. Effigies of their leader, Nick Clegg, have been burned on the streets. Students are rioting because of "betrayals" and broken pledges on tuition fees. They are perceived as flip-floppers and liars.

As ever, the truth is more complicated. I had dinner recently with a senior Lib Dem minister who explained just how much his party was doing inside government to "rein in and moderate" the Tories.

Cable is a social democrat and a Keynesian economist by training. He once told me over lunch at the New Statesman that, though he left the Labour Party long ago, he believes "passionately in the redistribution of wealth".

This week, as we all know, "Saint Vince" was humiliated after he was secretly recorded by those two giggly female undercover reporters at his constituency office; he has since been stripped of key responsibilities as Business Secretary after his assault on his "enemy", Rupert Murdoch.

His disparagers, perhaps long jealous of his popularity, have delighted in his humiliation. They have lined up to insult and traduce him. Newspaper columnists, from all sides, have been leading the charge. He is finished, they say. He is arrogant and complacent.

When the revelations broke, Ed Miliband called on David Cameron to sack Cable. This was a mistake by the Labour leader, because one day soon he may well need Cable's support. Instead of calling for him to go, he should have concentrated on the substance of what he'd said. Miliband was in front of an open goal and missed the target. Only the next day did he firm up his attack on the coalition.

Yet Cable had confirmed what many of us suspected – that this coalition is no "love-in". The Tories are in charge and they are behaving recklessly. The Lib Dems are taking the heat and they are being burned. In their haste to overturn Labour's legacies and dismantle Gordon Brown's client state, the Tories are in too much of a hurry – the admirable Tim Montgomerie, of Conservative Home, has written in the New Statesman of the "breakneck coalition". Their reforms to the health service, the welfare system and education are zealous and dangerous. Indeed, as Cable said, "they have not been thought through", as Michael Gove demonstrated once again with his latest reversal, this time on the School Sport Partnership programme (cut one minute, restored the next!).

Vince Cable may be something of a lone wolf, but he remains hugely popular among activists, as I discovered at that fringe meeting in Liverpool. Later, at the same conference, on 22 September, he gave a good speech in which argued for a new approach to taxation, switching the burden from earned to unearned income, from taxing income, or jobs, to assets, principally property and land. He said:

It will be said that in a world of internationally mobile capital and people it is counterproductive to tax personal income and corporate profit to uncompetitive levels. That is right. But a progressive alternative is to shift the tax base to property, and land, which cannot run away, [and] represents in Britain an extreme concentration of wealth.

(I wrote about the need for land reform and a new social democratic model in the New Statesman cover story of 18 October.)

Cable's mistake was to trust those two crafty female reporters not wisely, but too well. We demand that our politicians tell the truth but then vilify them when they speak candidly to "constituents". He's guilty of nothing more than vanity. It is correct that he remains in the cabinet, even though he is for now diminished.

Footnote: By the way, Vince sure knows how to wear a hat. He's been a fan of the fedora for years, and was wearing a particularly rakish one in photos taken after his unfortunate gaffe. Unkind observers might say it made him look like a minor character in a 1950s spy thriller. But everyone else will just be glad it's not a William Hague-style baseball cap.

Incidentally, can you imagine Cameron or Osborne in a hat? Beanie – too student protest. Flat cap – too Labour. Bowlers, boaters or top hats – too Bullingdon Club. That just leaves a Stetson . . .

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

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