Cable did not compare Cameron to Enoch Powell

The right have twisted the Business Secretary's words far beyond their original meaning in an attempt to force his departure from government.

It was Vince Cable's attack on the coalition's spending cuts (which broke new ground for a cabinet minister), rather than his criticism of the Tories' stance on immigration (which the two parties have long openly disagreed on), that was truly significant, but most of today's papers lead on the latter. The Telegraph's front page is the most striking, reporting that Cable compared David Cameron to Enoch Powell. On the Today programme this morning, Tory MP Nigel Mills declared that the comparison made it hard for the Business Secretary to continue sitting "round the cabinet table".

Had Cable compared Cameron to Powell, it would certainly be a story and grounds for his resignation (could he really remain in the same government as a modern day Powell?), but he didn't. Here, in case you missed it, is what Cable actually told The Andrew Marr Show:

I think there's a bigger picture here. We periodically get these immigration panics, I remember going back to Enoch Powell and 'rivers of blood' and all that, and if you go back a century there were panics over Jewish immigrants.

The responsibility of politicians in this situation when people are getting anxious is to try to reassure them and give them facts and not panic and resort to populist measures that do harm.

Read in context, it is clear that he was not comparing Cameron to Powell (any more than he was comparing him to 19th century anti-semites) but criticising his failure to respond effectively to the real Powells of today (Nigel Farage et al). The mention of "rivers of blood" was merely a reference to one of the defining examples of past tensions over immigration.

Tim Montgomerie argues I'm being too charitable to Cable ("an experienced politician") but it seems to me more likely that Cable (perhaps naïvely) simply expected the media to report his comments accurately. As I suggested earlier, had Cable truly intended to compare Cameron to Powell (as Gordon Brown did earlier this year when he declared that Tory immigration policy was "close to being Powellite"), it would prompt the question of how exactly he can bear to sit round the same table as the PM. But it is not hard to see why the Telegraph and others on the right would like to see Cable, who acts as a progressive check on Tory policy, removed from government.

But the reaction that the mere mention of Powell's name prompts is a reminder of how, 45 years on, the "rivers of blood" speech remains toxic for the Tories. Aware of this, Conservative strategists briefed in January that Cameron was so concerned at how the issue of race was damaging support for the party (just 16% of BME voters backed the Conservatives in 2010) that he would address it "head-on with a speech in the next two months". In reference to Powell, Sajid Javid, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who is of Pakistani origin, said that it would require "the Prime Minister, someone of that standing", to say Powell "doesn’t represent what the Conservative Party is today in any way and to set out what the Conservative Party actually is when it comes to race relations, multiculturalism and so forth". The Daily Mail went on to report that Cameron had "already asked for ideas for a speech to combat the idea that the spirit of Powell is alive in the modern Tory Party and is seeking ideas for policies which will dramatise the common values between Conservatives and non-white voters."

But nearly a year later, we've heard nothing from Cameron. Instead, his party has further damaged its reputation with ethnic minorities through a series of demagogic stunts (most notably the "go home" vans) on immigration. That, one suspects, is closer to the point Cable intended to make.

Vince Cable with David Cameron at No. 10 Downing Street in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Manchester attack will define this election: Broadcasters have a careful line to tread

It's right that the government should be given a chance to respond, but they must not be allowed to use it to campaign.

Every election campaign has its story, its place in the political history of this country. 2017 will forever be known for Manchester and the horror of the attack on Britain's young; and fighting terrorism will be a theme, overt or underlying, of what we see and hear between now and polling day.

The broadcasters have covered the events comprehensively yet sensitively. But they are aware that we're in an election campaign too; and when other news drives aside the carefully-balanced campaign formats, ministerial appearances give them a dilemma.

The fact is that what the Prime Minister and Home Secretary are doing in response to Manchester is newsworthy. It was Theresa May's duty to implement the recommendations of her security advisers on the elevation of the terror alert, and it would have been unthinkable for the news channels not to broadcast her various statements.

But it is also true that, if the bomb hadn't been detonated, Tuesday would have been a day in which the PM would have been under relentless damaging scrutiny for her u-turn on social care. All the opposition parties would have been in full cry across the airwaves. Yet in the tragic circumstances we found ourselves, nobody could argue that Downing Street appearances on the terror attack should prompt equal airtime for everyone from Labour to Plaid Cymru.

There are precedents for ministers needing to step out of their party roles during a campaign, and not be counted against the stopwatch balance of coverage. Irish terrorism was a factor in previous elections and the PM or Northern Ireland secretary were able to speak on behalf of the UK government. It applied to the foot and mouth epidemic that was occupying ministers' time in 2001. Prime ministers have gone to foreign meetings before, too. Mrs Thatcher went to an economic summit in photogenic Venice with her soulmate Ronald Reagan three days before the 1987 election, to the irritation of Neil Kinnock.

There are plenty of critics who will be vigilant about any quest for party advantage in the way that Theresa May and Amber Rudd now make their TV and radio appearances; and it’s inevitable that a party arguing that it offers strength and stability will not object to being judged against these criteria in extreme and distressing times.

So it's necessary for both broadcasters and politicians to be careful, and there are some fine judgements to be made. For instance, it was completely justifiable to interview Amber Rudd about the latest information from Manchester and her annoyance with American intelligence leaks. I was less comfortable with her being asked in the same interview about the Prevent strategy, and with her response that actions would follow "after June", which edges into party territory and would be a legitimate area to seek an opposition response.

When the campaigning resumes, these challenges become even greater. Deciding when the Prime Minister is speaking for the government and nation, or when she is leader of the Conservative Party, will never be black and white. But I would expect to see the broadcast bulletins trying to draw clearer lines about what is a political report and what is the latest from Manchester or from G7. They must also resist any efforts to time ministerial pronouncements with what's convenient for the party strategists' campaign grid.

There might also usefully be more effort to report straight what the parties are saying in the final days, with less spin and tactical analysis from the correspondents. The narrative of this election has been changed by tragedy, and the best response is to let the politicians and the public engage as directly as possible in deciding what direction the nation should now take.

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

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