Vince Cable and Danny Alexander's tug of war continues

After publicly disagreeing over the danger of a new housing bubble, the Lib Dem pair find themselves at odds over the end of the coalition.

The return of economic growth and Labour's fall in popularity has convinced the Lib Dems that there's little to be gained from an early exit from the coalition. The alternative of a confidence and supply deal with the Tories is viewed as the worst of all possible worlds. It would do nothing to placate those voters who despise them for propping up a Conservative government (indeed, this charge would have even more resonance), whilst antagonising those who believe they were right to enter coalition "in the national interest".

But during his day of dissent yesterday, Vince Cable used an evening fringe meeting to suggest that the coalition could break up before 2015. He said: "It's certainly possible. We are not at the stage of talking about that process. It is obviously a very sensitive one. It has got to be led by the leader. We have not yet had those conversations."

He later added on Newsnight that the position would be "collectively decided" closer to the election and that "all kinds of things are possible". But on Sky News this morning, Danny Alexander avoided such ambiguity in a calculated slap-down to Cable. He said:

This coalition will continue until the end of this Parliament as we promised for the very simple reason that we have a very big job to do - to clean up the economic mess that Labour left behind and entrench the recovery we are starting to see.

Vince was asked at a fringe meeting to speculate on a range of options. What I'm saying is that we have always made clear our firm intention is to make sure this coalition continues until the end.

We are not going to walk away from that job months or years before the end of the coalition government. We have big Lib Dem commitments to deliver.

lt's not the first time that Alexander and Cable, the party's two most senior economic spokesmen, have found themselves at odds during the Lib Dem conference.

After Cable warned that the government's Help To Buy scheme was in danger of creating a new housing bubble ("the danger lights have been flashing for some time") and suggested that its second phase should be limited to those regions where the market remains depressed, Alexander issued a stern rebuke, declaring that "We are a million miles away from a housing bubble in this country."

He added: "Right now the problem we face in the housing market is we are not building enough new homes and there are vast numbers of young people in work who could afford the monthly payments on their mortgage but simply can't afford the deposit they need to get a mortgage. The whole point of the second phase of the Help to Buy scheme is to help those people fulfil their aspirations and in doing so ensure there is more construction activity, that there are more new homes being built."

With these two clashes, the private tensions between Cable and Alexander, who many Lib Dems believe has been captured by George Osborne, are becoming increasingly public.

Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Commons Confidential: What happened at Tom Watson's birthday party?

Finances, fair and foul – and why Keir Starmer is doing the time warp.

Keir Starmer’s comrades mutter that a London seat is an albatross around the neck of the ambitious shadow Brexit secretary. He has a decent political CV: he was named after Labour’s first MP, Keir Hardie; he has a working-class background; he was the legal champion of the McLibel Two; he had a stint as director of public prosecutions. The knighthood is trickier, which is presumably why he rarely uses the title.

The consensus is that Labour will seek a leader from the north or the Midlands when Islington’s Jeremy Corbyn jumps or is pushed under a bus. Starmer, a highly rated frontbencher, is phlegmatic as he navigates the treacherous Brexit waters. “I keep hoping we wake up and it’s January 2016,” he told a Westminster gathering, “and we can have another run. Don’t we all?” Perhaps not everybody. Labour Remoaners grumble that Corbyn and particularly John McDonnell sound increasingly Brexitastic.

To Tom Watson’s 50th birthday bash at the Rivoli Ballroom in south London, an intact 1950s barrel-vaulted hall generous with the velvet. Ed Balls choreographed the “Gangnam Style” moves, and the Brockley venue hadn’t welcomed so many politicos since Tony Blair’s final Clause IV rally 22 years ago. Corbyn was uninvited, as the boogying deputy leader put the “party” back into the Labour Party. The thirsty guests slurped the free bar, repaying Watson for 30 years of failing to buy a drink.

One of Westminster’s dining rooms was booked for a “Decent Chaps Lunch” by Labour’s Warley warrior, John Spellar. In another room, the Tory peer David Willetts hosted a Christmas reception on behalf of the National Centre for Universities and Business. In mid-January. That’s either very tardy or very, very early.

The Labour Party’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, is a financial maestro, having cleared the £25m debt that the party inherited from the Blair-Brown era. Now I hear that he has squirrelled away a £6m war chest as insurance against Theresa May gambling on an early election. Wisely, the party isn’t relying on Momentum’s fractious footsloggers.

The word in Strangers’ Bar is that the Welsh MP Stephen Kinnock held his own £200-a-head fundraiser in London. Either the financial future of the Aberavon Labour Party is assured, or he fancies a tilt at the top job.

Dry January helped me recall a Labour frontbencher explaining why he never goes into the Commons chamber after a skinful: “I was sitting alongside a colleague clearly refreshed by a liquid lunch. He intervened and made a perfectly sensible point without slurring. Unfortunately, he stood up 20 minutes later and repeated the same point, word for word.”

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era