Cable's most serious challenge yet to Cameron's authority: "Jeremiah was right"

The Business Secretary's repeated attacks on the Tories in his speech and his warnings of a new housing bubble meant it was easy to forget he is serving in the government at all.

There were moments in Vince Cable's speech to the Lib Dem conference where you had to pause to remind yourself that he is a serving member of the government, rather than an opposition politician. While Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander are focused on ensuring that the Lib Dems receive their share of the credit for the economic recovery, Cable cast himself as a Cassandra warning of a new and dangerous housing boom.

In the most striking passage of his speech, he declared that "there are already amber lights flashing to warn us of history repeating itself" and derided those (George Osborne) who would settle for "a short-term spurt of growth fuelled by old-fashioned property boom and bankers rediscovering their mojo". After David Cameron rather mildly remarked, "It's not right to cast Vince as a perpetual Jeremiah. He can brighten up from time to time", Cable pulled no punches in response, quipping that "David Cameron has called me a Jeremiah, but you’ll recall from your reading of the Old Testament that Jeremiah was right." He added: "He [Jeremiah] warned that Jerusalem would be overrun by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar.  In my own Book of Lamentations I described how Gordon Brown’s New Jerusalem was overrun by an army of estate agents, property speculators and bankers.

"The problem we have now is that the invaders are coming back.  They have a bridgehead in London and the south east of England. They must be stopped.  Instead we need sustainable growth."

Cable has never been a stirring platform orator and the response from delegates was more muted than in previous years but the speech was the most significant he has delivered since becoming Business Secretary. More than at any other point, he has gone exceeding the normal limits of collective responsibility.

While the speech opened with a recollection of the "unhealthy tribalism" and "Tammany Hall culture" that led him to resign from Labour in the 1970s (which he suggested had been reborn in Falkirk and other "Labour fiefdoms"), it was otherwise dominated by excoriating attacks on the Tories. He declared that "the nasty party" was back, with "dog whistle politics, orchestrated by an Australian Rottweiler.  Hostility towards organised labour, people on benefits and immigrant minorities." He rebuked his "cabinet colleagues" for "careless talk" about Britain leaving the EU and declared: "Let’s remember that we voted to join the present Coalition.  We did not vote to join a coalition with UKIP."

Elsewhere, in a rebuke to those on the right of the Lib Dems, such as Jeremy Browne and David Laws, seeking to push the party in a more free market direction, he warned that it was not enough to be "a nicer version of the Tories", again signalling his instinctive preference for Labour.

Ahead of 2015, the balancing act required of the Lib Dems is to differentiate themselves from the Tories without discrediting the government they have served in for more than three years. After Cable's unreserved attacks on the coalition's economic policies, Clegg will feel that the Business Secretary has failed in that task.

Vince Cable delivers his speech at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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