Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The Importance of Vince Cable

Oh dear. It seems Vince Cable has made a bit of an embarrassing mistake by telling two undercover Telegraph journalists (posing as constituents) about how unhappy he was in the government, and that there was an implicit threat of a ‘nuclear option’ of resigning and destabilising the government.

Yet as Professor Steve Fielding of Nottingham University says: “What he’s done is say things that everybody really knew he thought, he’s ended up giving a justification for the coalition from the Liberal Democrat perspective. It’s short-term embarrassment, but in the long- term, it’s education of the voters.”

Vince Cable is terribly important to the coalition. Until recently he was better known than his own leader and he can be seen as the number 2 Lib Dem in the cabinet, he is a totemic figure, well known and popular amongst the general public, but he is also extremely popular with the party grassroots. In a sense, his apparent unhappiness is a boon to the Coalition as it helps reinforce that Lib Dem cabinet ministers are not simply ‘Yellow Tories’. Cable has voiced concerns which reinforce this, and this is likely to make Lib Dem activists and supporters feel someone is ‘fighting their corner’ as it were. It is also ludicrous to suggest that the second most well known and probably most popular Liberal Democrat MP should be outside the cabinet. It is also notable that cabinets provide several functions. One is simply to put the best man or woman in the best job. Yet another is to represent the various factions that make up the government. Cable, therefore, represents the disgruntled Liberal Democrat faction, who will only become more disgruntled if he is removed.

It should be noted that the need to represent factions is not just limited to the Lib Dems or to Coalition governments. John Prescott was placed in the Blair governments in order to provide a traditional working class ‘Old Labour’ voice at the heart of government. Peter Mandelson was brought into the Brown government to appease Blairite critics of Brown, whereas William Hague provides a role in appeasing the Conservative Party grassroots, amongst whom he is more popular than Cameron.

A popular suggestion amongst right-wingers appears to be the replacement of Cable, with David Laws. Laws is important to the coalition also, but for entirely opposite reasons to Cable. David Laws represents the line where Lib Demmery and Conservatism meet. Laws, in many ways, embodies the coalition, and is the chief ideologue of the Liberal Democrat right. His importance, therefore, is in terms of providing a Lib Dem who is popular amongst Tories, and who helps to unite the parties. Cable’s importance is in stabilising the Lib Dem grassroots by making them feel represented. These are opposite roles and the replacement of Cable with Laws can only result in a further belief amongst the Lib Dem grassroots that the right-wing of the party is taking over, and a destabilisation of the party as a result. Conservative supporters and activists may wonder why they should care about this, but an unstable Liberal Democrats makes an unstable government, and makes Labour look better by comparison. It also risks bringing down the government and threatening a fresh general election, and there is no guarantee Cameron would win a majority on his second try (it is worth remembering that of the two times where there have been two elections in a year – 1910 and 1973 – the electorate has voted much the same way). The survival of the Coalition remains the best chance to implement Conservative policy, and the stability of the Liberal Democrats as the junior partner is vital to that goal.

Yet Cable’s comments are, as Professor Fielding suggests, somewhat enlightening. "I have a nuclear option; it's like fighting a war. They know I have nuclear weapons, but I don't have any conventional weapons. If they push me too far then I can walk out and bring the government down and they know that. So it is a question of how you use that intelligently without getting involved in a war that destroys all of us. That is quite a difficult position to be in and I am picking my fights. Some of which you may have seen." These words are not really the words of any typical narrative about coalition. They are not the words of a man whose third party is running the show, in fact they are the words of a man who feels he has few tools to influence policy (few ‘conventional weapons’ in Cable’s vocabulary). Yet they are also not the words of a ‘Tory lapdog’ willing to accede to any request from his Tory taskmasters. For Cable, at least, this is clearly a marriage of convenience. His ‘Conservative friends’ are colleagues, ones he does not necessarily agree with, and nothing more. He is fighting his corner as best he can, but the fact is that the Coalition is majority Conservative by far. Yet he is right that his ‘nuclear option’ could ‘destroy us all’.

Cable will remain for these reasons and more. He will continue to be vital to the Coalition, but if he had a nuclear option it has now been disarmed, for leaving the government will no longer be seen as principled but as a negotiating tactic. The greatest importance of Vince Cable is that he stabilises the coalition, but he has weakened his own ability to destabilise it. In a sense he may have stabilised the coalition further by doing so. If this is the case then he has weakened the Lib Dem position within the government, and from a Conservative POV that may be the true importance of today’s events.


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