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.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.