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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.