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.

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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 assistant editor of the New Statesman.