Cable opens fire on Cameron

Business Secretary attacks the Prime Minister’s immigration speech as “very unwise”.

The Lib Dems may have been in an assertive mood recently, but Vince Cable's attack on David Cameron's immigration speech is still remarkable. The Business Secretary described the Prime Minister's comments as "very unwise" and said the speech "risked inflaming extremism". It's one of the most striking acts of disloyalty from a cabinet minister in recent history. One suspects that, were this a single-party government, Cable would be facing the sack. In the age of coalition government, however, the rules of the game have changed.

After all, this isn't the first time that the Business Secretary has attacked Cameron's stance on this issue. Last September he said the immigration cap was "doing great damage" and admitted that he was "at the limit of collective responsibility". Given that the Lib Dems went into the general election promising an amnesty for illegal immigrants and ended up supporting the Tories' unworkable cap, it's hardly surprising that Cable feels the need to reassert his liberal credentials.

But while it's one thing for Cable to distance himself from the Conservative pledge to reduce net migration to "tens of thousands" a year (a policy that did not make it into the Coalition Agreement), it's quite another for him effectively to accuse the Prime Minister of pandering to racists. Yet the early indications are that he will keep his job: as one No 10 source simply told PoliticsHome, "Vince is Vince". But such a sanguine response won't go down well with the Tories, many of whom were frustrated that Cable remained in place after declaring "war" on Rupert Murdoch. They will rightly argue that a Conservative cabinet minister wouldn't receive such lenient treatment. Not for the first time, Cameron will be accused of weakness by his own side.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.