David Prosser: It may have provoked but Cable's speech was hardly anti-capitalist


Outlook We can surely forgive Vince Cable one afternoon of political grandstanding. In opposition, Mr Cable was the LibDems' showman-in-chief, a far more effective and respected critic of the Labour government than the Conservatives with whom he now works. How the hair-shirt of office must have chafed these four long months. Even when his Tory colleagues asked Sir Philip Green, that master of tax avoidance, to work for coalition, the Business Secretary felt compelled to bite his tongue.

Mr Cable, then, is entitled to cut loose for an hour or two. Nor can he have been entirely displeased with some of the headlines prompted yesterday by the early release of extracts of his speech. The Daily Mail's "Cable's attack on capitalism" will no doubt have played particularly well with those in the Business Secretary's party who fear their leaders are giving up too much in the Coalition.

Still, while Richard Lambert, the director-general of the CBI, was happy to play the game, providing some frosty feedback to Mr Cable's speech, what did the Business Secretary say, exactly, that even the most rabid advocate of free market capitalism would object to?

Not a lot. The tone of the speech may have been deliberately provocative – all that talk of shining a light into "murky" corners – but you will be hard pressed to find anyone at the CBI, or elsewhere in business, who disagrees with much of the content. The idea that shareholders should have every chance to hold to account the management of the companies they own is hardly controversial. Nor is the suggestion that even greater disclosure of executive remuneration may be necessary.

In fact, what Mr Cable is really shining a light on – and he is hardly the first – is the debate about how we nurture a private sector that is capable of driving the economy forward while also curbing the excesses to which it is prone. Or, to put it another way, how we encourage business, from bankers to bingo hall owners, to focus on the long-term rather than allowing their heads to be turned by destructive short-term goals.

So far, the Business Secretary has not offered too many new answers to these rather tricky posers. But the practical applications of such objectives are things like the new rules on takeovers that figures such as Roger Carr, the former chairman of Cadbury, have called for, which would emphasise the interests of long-term investors over short-term speculators.

We shall see how Mr Cable fares in these endeavours during his term in office. But to paint him as anti-business on the basis of one speech to the party faithful is nonsense. It's worth pointing out that the one time Mr Cable has stuck his head above the parapet since coming to office was when he supported the complaints of business leaders about the Government's immigration cap. If he really wants to join the rebels on the barricades, it was a curious issue on which to revolt.

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