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Leave Business Secretary Vince Cable alone – he’s the moral centre of this Coalition

May 24, 2012 12:30 PM
By Peter Oborne in The Telegraph
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

Vince CableThe Business Secretary, Vince Cable, has stayed loyal to the Government without surrendering his identity.

Many Conservatives regarded Vince Cable as the least congenial member of the Coalition government right from the start. A former Labour councillor in Glasgow and special adviser to John Smith when he was trade secretary in the Jim Callaghan administration of the late 1970s, Mr Cable has often seemed mulish and uncooperative.

His body language has spoken volumes. The notorious Cable scowl has occasionally cast a dark cloud over Prime Minister's Questions. In a government of chums he is not a chum. Part of the problem is age. The four members of the so-called "Quad" who run the Coalition and get on so well - Cameron, Clegg, Osborne, Alexander - are all in their early to mid 40s. Mr Cable was president of the Cambridge Union in 1965, before any of them was born.

Some of the briefing against Mr Cable has been merciless. One Conservative minister told me that "he just doesn't like or understand business," accusing him of failing to listen to Britain's largest companies. Others accuse him of blocking pro-business reforms. This insidious line of attack finally came out into the open yesterday when The Daily Telegraph carried an interview with the Tory donor and private equity boss Adrian Beecroft.

Mr Beecroft's comments have one important point in their favour. In sharp contrast to Mr Cable's cowardly Conservative critics, he has had the courage and decency to go public with his inflammatory claim that the Business Secretary is a "socialist who found a home in the Lib Dems".

Nevertheless, he is mistaken. I believe that any serious and objective consideration of Mr Cable's record in office shows that he has been a formidable Cabinet minister, an important ally of enterprise, and, above all, one of the most loyal and supportive members of this Government.The true test of loyalty comes when a minister's support is sacrificial, in the sense that it is unpopular with his own political base and therefore damaging to his personal interests. Mr Cable endured just such a test, and emerged with flying colours, when he threw his full-hearted backing behind the higher education reforms, the responsibility of his Tory junior minister David Willetts, in the early months of the Coalition.

These reforms, and in particular the proposal to raise tuition fees to an upper limit of £9,000, were toxic among Liberal Democrats. Mr Cable could have stood aside, and there were some who advised him to do so. Instead, he joined the battle.

He has shown comparable self-effacement in his loyalty to George Osborne. History is full of self-confident business secretaries who have embarked upon a war with the Treasury and sought to set out their own rival economic strategy: George Brown in the mid 1960s and Michael Heseltine in the early 1990s are well-known examples. Mr Cable, who set out his own plans for economic revival ahead of the 2010 election, would have had every excuse.

But he has shown unstinting support for Mr Osborne's financial strategy, and resisted what must have been a very substantial temptation to set himself up as an alternative chancellor. Accepting that retrenchment was inevitable, he oversaw a significant reduction in the number of his department's civil servants, once again a hateful move for Liberal Democrats. He has not just acted by the letter, but in the full spirit of this reforming Government, quietly privatising the Royal Mail, standing out against new regulation in the workplace, and becoming a powerful advocate of Oliver Letwin's "red tape challenge". Mr Cable deserves the bulk of the praise for the recent small surge of inward investment into Britain, though characteristically he has not tried to grab all the credit.

Now we come to the Beecroft report, the source of the latest trouble and the excuse for so much Downing Street-inspired private briefing against Mr Cable in recent months. The core point to understand is that the Business Secretary did not block Beecroft. Indeed, he accepted almost all of his recommendations. On only one issue, Mr Beecroft's now notorious proposal for "no fault dismissal" - the disastrous consequences of which were unwisely described by the private equity mogul as a "price worth paying" - did Mr Cable object. It is worth noting that he did not initially dismiss even this proposal out of hand, taking the emollient and considered step of putting it out for consultation.

Mr Beecroft has responded by labelling Mr Cable a "socialist" and a danger to good government. The language is intemperate, but more importantly Mr Cable is right and Mr Beecroft, along with his Conservative admirers, has taken a very dangerous wrong turning. The kind of untrammelled free market capitalism which Mr Beecroft is advocating is inhumane, unedifying and unBritish, and ultimately comes close to the false proposition that the Conservative Party should be the plaything of very rich men pursuing their financial interests at the expense of a disempowered workforce.

It's easy for Mr Beecroft to make his sweeping statements. He is very rich. Apax, the company he helped to run, was one of a number of similar concerns which made vast fortunes for a tiny financial elite on the back of Gordon Brown's tax reforms at the turn of the century. Ed Miliband, who was a special adviser at the Treasury during this period, showed quite breathtaking hypocrisy in attacking David Cameron yesterday for his links with millionaires.

In truth, Mr Cameron, who has stood by his Business Secretary over Beecroft, does not emerge too badly out of this affair. None the less, the man he needs to thank for keeping the Conservative Party in touch with rudimentary human decency is the widely despised Vince Cable.

It sounds paradoxical to say so, but Mr Cable is a new type of politician. He has knocked about the world, working as an adviser to the Kenyan government and chief economist of Shell. He has unusual personal accomplishment, as anyone who saw his remarkable appearance on Strictly Come Dancing will know. He is the author of the most gripping memoir by an active politician since that by David Blunkett. He has known personal tragedy through the slow death from cancer of his first wife, Olympia. He has rough edges and has enjoyed a genuine career outside Westminster. Alone among the Liberal Democrat members of the front bench, Mr Cable has managed to stay loyal to the Coalition without surrendering his identity.

There was a time when age was an advantage in British public life. It was recognised that the old possessed qualities that were unattainable for the young. This respect for human longevity helps explain why William Ewart Gladstone, the greatest prime minister of the 19th century, did not enter No 10 until he was 58, and enjoyed three terms of office thereafter. That time may yet come again. Mr Cable is now in that very interesting place: he is the moral centre of gravity for the Coalition and of British public life. If Nick Clegg, as widely expected, steps down as Lib Dem leader before the general election, Mr Cable - should he decide to run - is highly likely to replace him. His best years may lie ahead.

Bill Smith - Nottingham City Comments - 24 May 2012

Fifty years ago when I was an apprentice in an engineering firm in Darlington, the memory of the "hungry thirties" was still strong.

People would greet each other around the works with "Plenty of work, then?"

There was a strong tendency to "make" work, so great was the fear of working themselves out of a job. Improving productivity was the last thing on their minds.

Measures like those suggested by Adrian Beecroft could revive these attitudes in the work force with no benefit to anybody.

Webmaster Comments

Yes - when I was doing student placements in the early 50's in both Manchester and Zurich (working with Germans) the workers and unions would ask me not to work so fast as it would deprive them of work. The Germans in particular could make a mornings work last all day!