Vince Cable's decision not to take part in today's crunch debate on the economy at the Lib Dem conference is a decided snub to Nick Clegg and the Deputy Prime Minister couldn't help sounding rather helpless on the Today programme this morning. He said:
I'm the leader of the Liberal Democrats, I don't run a bootcamp, I don't tell people when they have to turn up for a meeting.
That Clegg feels unable to persuade or force his party's pre-eminent economic voice to speak in the most important debate of the conference reveals much about his lack of authority.
Cable's excuse is that he will be preparing to deliver his speech at 12:30pm (the debate runs from 10-11:40am) but he has also expressed sympathy for the rebel amendments put forward by the Social Liberal Forum against "Osbornomics". The party's left believes that the Lib Dems need to do more to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives by promising to adopt a slower pace of deficit reduction and to remove the limits on council borrowing to enable the building of an extra 300,000 homes a year, including 50,000 for social rent. But Clegg, who will, unusually for a leader, conclude the debate, is more concerned with ensuring the party takes its share of the credit for the economic recovery. To do so, he believes that the Lib Dems must avoid appearing overly discontent at the path pursued by the coalition.
In an attempt to marry these two priorities, Cable suggested at the weekend that a compromise could be struck. He told the Guardian: "Some of the stuff is perfectly good, such as on housing and indeed the idea that as an independent party we are going to have to have a different approach to the economy during the election. That is all good stuff.
"What is then the argument? I am not an expert on conference procedure but there is this ancient art of compositing where people gather together the good elements in competing motions and we proceed.
"I would be surprised if there is a big bust-up, maybe not even a vote. I don't know enough about procedure to judge it. But I would think intelligent people can reconcile these approaches."
It is Clegg's refusal to compromise, rather than Cable's need to prepare his speech, that most likely explains the absence of the Business Secretary. With Saint Vince on the sidelines and the party membership keen to demonstrate its independence from the leadership at some point, some senior activists are now predicting defeat for Clegg.