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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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

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 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage