Clegg: I can't force Vince Cable to defend me on the economy

With Cable planning to stay away from the key Lib Dem conference vote on the economy, Clegg says: "I don't run a bootcamp, I don't tell people when they have to turn up for a meeting."

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.

Vince Cable has chosen not to speak in the economy debate, which Nick Clegg will conclude this morning at the Liberal Democrat conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour tensions over pro-EU campaign grow

Andy Burnham warned Alan Johnson of danger of appearing part of the "establishment case". 

Compared to the Conservatives, Labour is remarkably united over the EU, with the entire shadow cabinet and 214 of its 231 MPs backing the party's In campaign. Only a handful have joined the rival Labour Leave group, though sources are confident that more, potentially including shadow ministers, will do so when David Cameron's renegotiation concludes. 

But there are notable tensions within the In campaign. At this week's shadow cabinet meeting, which received a presentation from pro-EU head Alan Johnson, Andy Burnham warned of electoral damage to Labour if it was part of the "establishment case" for staying in. Burnham emphasised the need for the party to differentiate itself from Cameron and business leaders, I'm told. Angela Eagle also spoke of her concern at the number of eurosceptic Labour supporters. 

Just as the SNP surged following the Scottish independence referendum, so some shadow cabinet members believe Ukip could do so after the EU vote. One told me of his fear that those Labour supporters who voted Out would make "the transition" to voting for Farage's party. Ukip finished second in 44 of Labour's seats at the last election and helped the Tories win marginals off the opposition. 

Among Labour's pro-Europeans, the fear is that the party's campaign will be "half-hearted". Jeremy Corbyn, a long-standing eurosceptic (who some believe would have backed withdrawal had he not become leader), struggles to express enthusiasm for remaining In. Speaking to the New Statesman, former shadow Europe minister Emma Reynolds warned: 

"The British public will expect the Labour Party to have a clear position. And we do have a clear position and that's that we're going to campaign to stay in the EU. Trying to fudge the issue or hedge your bets is not going to go down well with the British public. Of course we need to talk to people about all aspects of the EU, and that will involve talking to people about immigration, but there isn't a 'maybe' on the ballot paper it's a binary choice between remain and leave. We have to be clear with people where we are because they won't thank us for being wishy-washy."

Labour's Brexiters draw comfort from the dearth of MPs campaigning for EU membership. Kate Hoey told me: "I have been genuinely surprised how few supposedly 'pro-EU' Labour MPs have been prepared to come out and speak publicly of their support for staying in. They know, as those of us campaigning on the Leave side know, that thousands and thousands of Labour supporters, all over the country, want to come out and they are not going to receive a great reception on the doostep". 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.