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 financial crisis and esteemed for his tough talk on banking reform, Cable punches above his weight among his junior coalition colleagues.
The shine, however, may have come off the cult of Cable since joining the cabinet, and more so since his petulant behaviour at party conference this year. The 70-year-old increasingly appears dithering, devious and something of a has-been.
Vince rolled up at conference intending to oppose his party’s economic stance and boycott the debate, only to walk in late and back the party line. He had also intended to support the Social Liberal Forum’s alternative economic strategy, only to vote against it when push came to shove.
Why did Cable align himself with Clegg’s critics in the first place, then allow himself to appear so irresolute?
The drama didn’t end there. Cable took to the podium and delivered a scathing attack on his own government, bemoaning his heavy burden tempering Tory excesses.
The narrative, intended to distance him from the coalition and toady to the grassroots, is woefully transparent. By swooping in from the Left, Cable sought to belittle his key rival – party president and Miliband fan, Tim Farron.
Has Cable’s performance left him isolated, or even scuppered any chance of becoming leader?
I arrived early for my appointment with Vince during the summer recess, roughly a month before the conference debacle unfolded. Budgets are slim for constituency offices, and the unassuming base of local Lib Dem operations on Lion Road, Twickenham, made distinct from its residential neighbours by its sickly yellow signage, is no exception. Sitting among filing cabinets in a room with all the structural hallmarks of someone’s front room, I awaited his return from a constituency engagement.
In December 2010, I’d sat in an occupied lecture theatre among Exeter’s less pliant student cohort, while Vince made the case in the Commons for raising the tuition fees cap. The broadcast speech drew heckles, condemning the party’s broken pledges – Judas figures forsaking equal opportunities for the paltry silver of shared power.
The shy gentleman who hauled his bicycle over the threshold, fumbling with his keys, however, fell short of the villains we’d envisaged back then.
Cable is certainly patient – it took him five attempts over 30 years to win a seat in parliament. Today, he boasts a healthy majority as he enters a fourth full year in government. Since his re-election, of course, Cable holds an influential post, albeit in bed with his former Tory opponents.
“I spent all my political life fighting with the Conservatives, so finding myself in coalition with them was uncomfortable,” Vince admitted, as we settled in the somewhat surreal setting of a fitted domestic kitchen to the office rear. “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.”
“Despite the fact that I’ve had policy disagreements, we’ve actually worked quite well as a team. I’d say it’s quite a grown up government.”
His sentiments jarred with those reserved for conference delegates, as did his appealing sketch of tranquil seas. Liberal Democrat membership and funding figures tell a different story about the costs of coalition.
The party ended 2012 with a £410k deficit, and a haemorrhaging membership down at 42,501, representing a massive 35% drop since the dizzying heights of Cleggmania in 2010.
“Membership has taken a hit,” Vince acknowledged. “But I think that’s true of the Tories and Labour – the Tories in particular. Membership is a tiny, tiny fraction of what it was for these parties in their heyday.”
“We’ve done relatively well considering we lost large amounts of money when we went into government – the so called short-funding that you get as an opposition party, but we’ve made it up. In fact our financial position isn’t too bad.”
The former deputy leader’s rosy outlook is possibly not shared by the party grassroots he since sought to mollify. A recent internal poll indicates that while 80% of members back the Tory led coalition, a mere 18% endorse a repeat of the 2010 agreement. More than half favour a coalition with Labour after 2015 – a preference acknowledged by Farron.
“I think that was probably true at the outset as well,” said Vince. “I think we have to be hard headed and go into the next election as an independent party, equidistant between the other two.
“We’ve got to be willing to work with other parties, but I think it would probably be quite difficult for our membership if we had yet another coalition with the Conservatives. A lot of them didn’t join because of that kind of politics. So there’s quite a tricky balancing act.”
His virulent attack on his Tory colleagues at conference may have swung that balance a little too far. But it will take more than that to adjust the wider public’s perception of the party. Its move to the centre, even prior to coalition, produced a political vacuum where protest voters had once cast their ballot.
“Yes, I think that’s inevitably the case,” Vince said with surprising candour. “Some of our support was protest or anti-establishment. You do realise being the incumbent – being part of the establishment – you annoy people. It’s inherent. But then I think you have to make a decision as a political party. Do you want to be a permanent protest party on the fringes, or do you want to be part of government.”
“If you just want a pure protest party, we have vacated that territory, that’s for sure. And the UKIP people may be filling it in part. But the current polls don’t suggest they’re going to make a massive breakthrough, and if they do it will be predominantly at the expense of the Conservatives.”
Cable began his political career in the Labour party, unsuccessfully contesting Glasgow Hillhead in 1970, and serving behind the red rosette on Glasgow City Council. Whether or not he could stomach a future Lib-Lab coalition, he certainly rejects an outright Labour victory in 2015 as a foregone conclusion.
“The Labour party, in a way, had a big open goal, but they’re currently in difficulties. First of all, people associate them with the economic failure at the end of the last government, and the two Eds were very much involved with that. They don’t seem able to shake it off and explain convincingly why the British economy collapsed on their watch.
“The other reason is their unhealthily close relationship with unions in general and Unite in particular. And those two things are undoubtedly dragging them down, and their support is very much concentrated in what I’d call their tribal vote. They’re not picking up new people.”
Cable reached these conclusions in 1982 when he joined the Social Democratic Party’s infamous split. He was the SDP-Liberal Alliance parliamentary candidate for his home city of York in both the 1983 and 1987 general elections, then, following the 1988 merger, lost his first bid for Twickenham in 1992.
“There’s everything to play for,” Vince insisted, ceding a battle ready grin. “I think maybe people will be quite surprised how well the Lib Dems actually do. That’s not what the polls are saying at the moment. But given the difficulties the Labour party has, given the dissatisfaction with the Conservatives, there is a big area there where people may very well turn to us as a sensible, middle-of-the-road party.”
“I was very much on the left, in the Labour Party, so I came at politics from that direction. I suppose I would still describe myself as essentially a social democrat, which is something I brought into the Liberal Democrats 30 years ago when the party was founded.”
Here is an image Cable sought to nurture in his conference address. But as a contributing author of the pro-market Orange Book, Cable’s claims at being a social democrat at heart may ring rather hollow. His credentials as a robust free-marketeer are manifest – opposed to onerous regulation of financial services and, as plans for Royal Mail testify, eager to lay public assets out to tender. Perhaps it’s no surprise he and George Osborne have enjoyed such a fertile working relationship after all.
Before entering parliament in 1997, Vince spent three decades as an economic advisor to various organisations, including the Kenyan government, Chatham House and the World Bank. He also spent two years as chief economist at oil giant, Shell.
Winning his seat among the 1997 intake, Cable’s background quickly earned him the role of treasury spokesman. With astute observations on the necessity of nationalising Northern Rock, and insightfully predicting the Lehmans collapse, he was rewarded in 2010 with a seat on the front bench as business secretary, where he has routinely threatened to use his ‘nuclear option’ to break the coalition early. He brandished this trump card again during conference.
Given the nuances of his career, and his vacillating rhetoric, has Cable been truly consistent on the economy and banking, or simply reacted to grim circumstance?
“We’re in a much more difficult and very different world now,” he said earnestly.
“I believed even before we came into government that we should have been setting out to the public, in rather brutal terms, that we’re entering a world of cuts, but that was actually quite difficult to do.”
“I was one of the very few people who were pushing for much more active control over what the big banks were doing, and particularly in relation to business lending, so I’ve been pretty consistent on the banks and I remain so.”
Having warned against complacency, what does Dr Cable prescribe to keep the anaemic economic recovery on course?
“I do believe the collapse of the banks inflicted terrible damage. I’ve often used the metaphor: it was the economic equivalent of a heart attack. And in government I’ve worked with the Chancellor to push through reforms to split the banks, through so-called ringfencing.”
“A lot has been done now to make the banks more carefully regulated than was the case before. Bankers’ pay has drastically shrunk, and it’s been done in a way that is much less reckless. The incentives structure is much more rationally based now.”
“There is a very serious lack of trust in banks in particular and I think business in general. As a politician, one has to be careful about this because politicians are probably even less trusted than them.”
Cable reached the top of his political game late in life. At the time of our interview, I was curious whether age had narrowed his ambitions, or whether a leadership bid still lurked in the Lib Dem bushes. Events in Glasgow indicate one did.
“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,” he said, giving away nothing of his plans for conference.
Did Cable trade in his principles for a taste of power? Events in Glasgow suggest a mere taste was never enough. If his scheming has indeed been exposed, the cult status he has long enjoyed is possibly spent. In my view – not a moment too soon.