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Friday, 24 December 2010

Cable's role diminished after "War with Murdoch" gaffe

On Tuesday morning it emerged that a number of senior Liberal Democrats had expressed concern about some of the government's plans - and their own roles within it. The revelations indicated that a number of ministers had misgivings about the "fairness" of certain policies including increasing tuition fees and withdrawing child benefit from higher earning families.

On the child benefit issue, Steve Webb is reported as saying that "the details aren't right", Ed Davey claimed to be "gobsmacked" by the decision and Scottish Secretary Michael Moore insisted that it "was blatantly not a consistent and fair thing to do". Moore has also hit out against the tuition fees hike, claiming that the move was "deeply damaging" to the Liberal Democrats and that it amounted to "the biggest, ugliest, most horrific thing in all of this...a car crash, a train wreck...I've done the worst crime a politician can commit, the reason most folk distrust us as a breed. I've had to break a pledge and very, very publicly."

On top of this, business secretary Vince Cable was talking up a "nuclear option" - that of being personally able to bring down the government by resigning from it. It wasn't sensible and it wasn't particularly dignified. It seemed tactically naive, although Clegg and Cameron were happy to brush it to one side. Like party activists, the two leaders understood that there are internal battles being fought and that it is natural for ministers to haggle and argue over policy compromises.

Regrettably, it is the public expression of unhappiness on the part of senior Lib Dems that is cause for concern. On one level Lib Dem activists can be now assured that, in spite of previously defending policy in public, many ministers share our concerns about the coalition's policy direction. I for one could identify with the positions of Moore, Webb and Davey and I imagine there are many who are relieved at what the revelations reveal about relationships inside the cabinet. It is no bad thing that differences of opinion lie at the heart of government. However, on another level it is disconcerting that private tensions should spill over into the public domain and have such potentially damaging effects on the unity of the coalition and on our own scope for effectiveness within it. Politically experienced ministers should be sufficiently adept at concealing their broader feelings from journalists, however subtle their cover.

Of course, these remarks were nothing to what came later. Almost immediately after the press conference in which Clegg and Cameron dealt with questions relating to Cable's "nuclear option", new revelations emerged which demonstrated even more reckless behaviour on the part of the business secretary. It emerged that, in a conversation with two Daily Telegraph reporters posing as party activists, Dr Cable had claimed that "I am picking my fights...I have declared war on Mr Murdoch and I think we are going to win...His whole empire is now under attack...so there are things like that we do in government that we can't do [in opposition]".

Immediately, Downing Street criticised the comments as "totally unacceptable and inappropriate". Dr Cable met separately with Nick Clegg and the Prime Minister and - after further emergency meetings which included chancellor George Osborne - he was stripped of his responsibilities for media policy although was allowed to continue to serve as business secretary largely because Cameron feared the effect of losing another senior Lib Dem from the cabinet on coalition unity. There is little doubt that if a Tory minister had made such a grave error of judgement he would have paid the ultimate price; ironically, and in a stunning role-reversal, Cable is now the beneficiary of his party's political standing. His survival owes nothing to his own abilities but to the awkwardness of replacing him. As Tory MP John Whittingdale said, it was "almost certainly [true] that Mr Cable would have been dismissed if he had been a Conservative. I'm not happy, but nevertheless I accept that in coalition we have to do things to keep our partners content...it's quite plain that Vince Cable is the second most important [Lib Dem] member of the coalition. we have already lost one leading Lib Dem minster and the feeling was we cannot afford to lose another."

As tensions in the Tory ranks increased, Labour leader Ed Miliband was unable to resist the temptation to indulge in some ill-judged gloating: "Liberal Democrats are now just passengers in a Tory-led government - not in the front seat, not even back seat, but locked in the boot."

It is difficult to understand Cable's motivations. As The Guardian pointed out, during the last few months Dr Cable has been transformed "from St. Vince to Mr Bean". There will be some who will point to naivete, and view him as the unfortunate victim of media manipulations. This would be too simplistic an interpretation; Cable's naivete is one of believing it to be politically expedient to say different things to different groups of people. There is so much more at play here, not least Cable's arrogance and self-indulgence which have now backfired spectacularly.

Significantly, this episode does far more than reveal Cable as arrogant. It shows his attitude towards the coalition - and in particular, how he views the success of Liberal Democrats within it. Many Lib Dem members and activists such as myself view it in terms of not only policy success (in which we act as a sobering influence on Conservative excesses and implement some of our own ideas) but - vitally - in terms of coalition survival. Liberal Democrats have a vested interest in ensuring that the coalition works and, as much as is possible, becomes a vehicle for a progressive new direction in policy. Cable, it seems, sees Lib Dem success in terms of taking on the Tories in individual battles and using these to express Lib Dem distinctiveness. The inevitable consequences of such an approach are strained relations within the coalition and an emphasis on internal conflict rather than unity of purpose and collaboration.

Cable's greatest asset was that he represented so much of what was and is distinctive about the Liberal Democrats. Unfortunately, his incendiary remarks and unhelpful talk of bringing down a government of which he is a key member threaten to further weaken the influence of the Lib Dems in government. Whatever Cable believed he was doing when speaking to reporters posing as constituents, he was not acting in the interests of either the coalition or his party.

The end result is that, while being allowed to continue to serve as business secretary, Cable has been stripped of any power to act an arbiter in the BSkyB case. Instead, the remit will go to Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary. It was not only Dr Cable, but the majority of Liberal Democrats who were concerned about News Corp's expansion. Cable faced demands from inside his own party - at all levels - to legally prevent News Corp buying the 61% of BSkyB it does not currently own. Hunt, whatever his personal views on the matter, is under no such pressure from Conservatives.

This spectacular own goal will have predictable ramifications for our party. Our influence over economic policy will be diminished and Cable, now weakened, will have more limited scope to provide much needed grit and a distinctive voice. In this respect, it may have been better - for the party if not the coalition - if Dr Cable had been replaced as business secretary rather than have a large chunk of his remit transferred elsewhere. Finally, it adds further ammunition to those who see the Liberal Democrats as either unfit for government or unable to adjust to the realities of "grown-up politics".

I have little doubt that this will change the nature of coalition dynamics and that the influence of our party will be very much the weaker for it.

It is also difficult to comprehend the motivations of the Daily Telegraph, which presumably would have a fair amount to lose if Murdoch's media empire is allowed to continue its expansionist agenda unchecked. Mr Murdoch, who now openly supports the Tories, will undoubtedly be delighted at the turn of events.

I would finally like to ask the question that doesn't yet appear to have been asked: why was Dr Cable unable to recognise the two journalists? Lest we forget, one of them was Holly Watt, the award-winning Young Journalist of the Year whose role in reporting (and creating) the MPs' expenses scandal should have made her instantly recognisable in Westminster. Even I know who she is and what she looks like, so is Dr Cable simply ignorant of developments and people within the media (a dangerous thing for a minister) or was he so keen to play up his independence and role to impress some constituents that he failed to consider the potential ramifications of the conversation being leaked (an even more dangerous thing)?

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