In the autumn of 2008, Vince Cable was the principal guest at one of our New Statesman Thursday lunches. Back then he was still the Gandalf of British politics: a benign sage, critic of the carelessness and excesses of the Blair-Brown boom years, the scourge of Tory neoliberal irresponsibility and a ubiquitous presence on television and radio. He was, in his own self-image, the Free Radical, as his memoir of 2009 was titled. To the rest of us, he was the nation's favourite "Vince".
This past week, when I interviewed him at a New Statesman fringe event at the Liberal Democrat conference in Liverpool, I asked him if nowadays he still felt quite as free and radical. I reminded him that in chemistry a free radical is something unstable, highly reactive and very dangerous - everything some Tories consider Cable to be. To them, he remains the enemy within, a lefty imposter at the cabinet table, the man most likely to mutiny.
“I'm a member of a party that has its principles and its policies and I'm bound by them," he told me. "In that sense, none of us who speak in the party's name are free - we have collective responsibility within our party. And I'm a member of a cabinet that also has collective responsibility."
He denied that he was operating at the very limits of collective responsibility, as has been suggested after he complained of how the government's rigid cap on non-EU migrants was adversely affecting prospects for growth.
Talking to Cable, I had no sense that he was miserable, as is often assumed. He gave every impression of being, like his leader Nick Clegg, committed to the coalition for the duration of the full, five-year parliamentary term. Power, you see, is thrilling - and at the age of 67 he is enjoying this unexpected late flourishing. Why walk away? Vince even described himself as an "enthusiastic deficit hawk", quite a turnaround from his pre-election position when, as a dedicated Keynesian, he warned repeatedly of the dangers of imposing austerity on a depressed economy. Now, he says: "I am a late convert [to George Osborne's position]."
But does the government have a plan B if the forward economic indicators continue to suggest that consumers are losing confidence and that the economy may yet tip back into recession? "There is a plan A," he said, to the delight of the assembled Lib Dem activists. "It would be very strange if the government said: this is our plan, we don't expect it to work, here's our plan B. That would be completely loony."
To translate: there's no alternative and there will be no turning back.
Quality of Mersey
On arriving in Liverpool, I booked a room at a hotel on Hope Street, which connects the city's two great cathedrals: a link road between faiths, a route across the old sectarian divide. The area in and around Hope Street, with its exceptionally fine restored Georgian terraces, has been revitalised, like so much of the city centre.
It can be difficult to explain to visitors who have never before been to Liverpool just how decayed the city centre was during the mass unemployment of the early 1980s, when so many of the once-grand public buildings, such as the neoclassical St George's Hall, opened in 1854 as both a concert hall and law courts, and outside which stands a statue of Disraeli, were sites of spectacular dereliction.
My room was on the fifth floor of the hotel, high up above the city below, and as the day's light faded you could see right across the rain-darkened streets to the waterside docks, declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2004, and out across the sea from where the ships used to arrive when Liverpool was still the great imperial port city.
Room of her own
On the train home from Liverpool, I finished reading Emma Donoghue's profoundly affecting Booker shortlisted-novel, Room. It is narrated by an endearing five-year-old boy named Jack, who for his entire life has been incarcerated with his young mother in a cork-lined basement room that measures 11 feet by 11 feet.
The novel is an imaginative recasting of the tragic case of Elisabeth Fritzl and one of her children, the five-year-old Felix, in Austria. To Jack, the room is the whole of the world, all he has known and all he can ever know.
The set-up is horrific: a student in an unnamed American town is kidnapped, locked away in a suburban dungeon and then systematically raped by her captor. But the novel is in no way horrific; it is rather a joy to read: complicated, verbally inventive, often and unexpectedly humorous. "When we see a natural style," wrote Blaise Pascal, "we are astonished and charmed; for we expected to see an author, and we find a person." It feels something like this with Donoghue's novel.
Edward the contender
It's absurd, the way Ed Miliband has been caricatured, especially by the middle-aged, right-of-centre commentariat, as an unreconstructed early-1980s-style leftist: "Red Ed", the Bennite reactionary. Yet, the more I think about it the more I understand quite what an extraordinarily resilient and cunning campaign he has fought. His brother, David, was preparing to run for the leadership long before Labour lost the general election. He was recruiting staff, chairing strategy meetings, raising funds, and so on. In a sense, he has been running a continuous well-funded campaign ever since the late summer of 2008, when he first began to agitate against the floundering Brown premiership.
Meanwhile, Ed spent the early months of this year preparing the ill-fated 2010 manifesto while agonising over whether he dared to challenge his elder brother. There was no momentum to his leadership bid, and little planning.
That during this protracted campaign he has defined himself against David, tacking to the left, is entirely sensible - he's been trying to win the leadership of the Labour Party, for goodness' sake, a party that, because of the Iraq war and the economic crisis, had lost all sense of confidence, purpose and direction. Why seek to occupy the centre ground when his brother had already pitched his camp there?
Whether Ed wins or narrowly loses, he has, from a standing start, established a significant power base within the party, especially among the young and those new members who have been stirred to join since the election. Win or lose, he has national prominence and has succeeded in speaking a different kind of language - indeed, even attempts to remoralise our political discourse - from that used so ritualistically by the New Labour establishment in the years after the second landslide of 2001, and all the failures and hurt that flowed from there.
Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman
Peter Wilby returns next week