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 Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.