Rarely does a politician garner the kind of popular acclaim enjoyed by the Rt Hon Vince Cable, MP for Twickenham and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. Lauded as the man who predicted the global financial crisis, and esteemed for his tough talk on banking reform, Lib Dem Cable punches far above his weight among the junior Coalition partners.
In an age of slick, spin-doctored personalities, Vince is from a rare, less polished political breed; a true everyman regarded locally with some affection. Regularly seen about the borough on constituency business, the Strictly Come Dancing veteran from Whitton has just returned to the Commons for his fourth full year in government.
I’ve arrived early for my appointment with the 70-year-old, who pinched the seat from the Conservatives in 1997. Dedicating Fridays and weekends to constituency work, Cable has campaigned tirelessly on issues such as hospital cleanliness, hospice funding, cancer screening and regulation of river pollution. He’s also an acutely outspoken critic of Heathrow expansion.
“Inevitably I have to place more emphasis on national things now,” he concedes. “But one of the great advantages of the British system is that ministers have their own constituencies. They’ve got local responsibilities. That brings you down to earth.”
So what are the current hot potatoes on his constituency plate?
“Well, there’s a lot of redevelopment taking place in Twickenham. The biggest projects are the station development, which has stalled because of a legal challenge, and the Royal Mail sorting site. There is also a proposal to develop a college site with Haymarket, which would be a massive transformation, with a lot of jobs involved.
“Heathrow is potentially a big issue. It’s quite hard to balance environmental concerns, including noise, against business pressures for expansion. I’m quite clear – the Coalition Agreement is quite clear – that we don’t need to extend Heathrow, but there is a need to improve air capacity generally.”
All this may take a while to resolve. But Vince Cable is a patient man. It took him five attempts, over 30 years, to win a seat in Parliament, standing in various northern constituencies for Labour and the SDP, before finally triumphing as a Lib Dem in Twickenham in 1997. Today he enjoys a healthy majority and, since 2010, an influential cabinet position – albeit in bed with his former Tory opponents.
“I’d spent all my political life fighting with the Conservatives, so to find myself in coalition with them was uncomfortable,” he admits. “But it was something we had to do in the national interest. It was the only way we could get a stable government. There was a major economic emergency and we had to get on and deal with it.”
Might the prescription be the same in 2015?
“We must be willing to work with other parties, but I think it would probably be quite difficult for our membership if we had another coalition with the Conservatives. A lot of them joined the party for a very different kind of politics, so there’s a tricky balancing act.
“At the moment, however, it’s all to play for. I think people may be quite surprised how well the Lib Dems actually do in 2015.”
Cable was born in York in 1943, the son of a working-class Tory lecturer known unaffectionately to his colleagues as ‘Hitler’. After attending Nunthorpe Grammar School, Vince secured a place at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, reading natural sciences and economics, before completing a PhD in economics at Glasgow University.
“My father was actually very right-wing in his politics, but highly admirable in many ways. He started working in a factory and finished up in quite a senior position teaching in a tech college. As a family, we were upwardly mobile with very much the ethic of hard work and saving and education. Obviously that moulded the way I looked at life.”
Before Parliament, Vince spent three decades as an economic advisor to various organisations – among them the Kenyan government, policy institute Chatham House and the World Bank – and two years as Chief Economist at oil giant Shell.
In 1968, he married his first wife, Olympia Rebelo, a Kenyan Asian whose family originated in Catholic Goa. Both families objected to the mixed union: it was four years before Vince and his father spoke again.
“He literally told me that I was taking leave of my senses,” he once revealed.
But in 1987, Olympia was diagnosed with breast cancer and, following a prolonged struggle, died just a handful of days after the 2001 general election. Vince has since remarried.
However, if his domestic life is now settled, his passage through government has been hampered by rough economic seas. The storms which broke five years ago have stubbornly refused to abate.
“We’re in a very different and much more difficult world now,” he reflects. “I was one of the very few people pushing for more active control over what the big banks were doing. Their collapse inflicted terrible damage. I’ve often used the metaphor of a heart attack – it was the economic equivalent of that.
“There is a serious lack of trust in banks, and in government I’ve worked with the Chancellor on reforms to split them up. As a politician, however, one has to be careful about this, as the public probably trusts us even less.”
And what of his personal ambitions? As the Coalition plods on, one eye on 2015, is there a leadership bid lurking in the Lib Dem bushes?
“I’ve always taken the view that, as long as I have energy, ambition, drive and good health, I should continue to do what I do. And I have all those things. I think I’ve achieved a lot in the past three years, but there’s much more to be done. And I’m happy to continue doing it.”