Vince Cable's middling grade as Business Secretary is well-deserved

Westminster Outlook

A Labour MP who sits on the Business Select Committee reckons that Vince Cable deserves a “C-minus” for his five years in the Cabinet.

This MP feels plenty of sympathy that the 71-year-old Liberal Democrat has often been in such open conflict with the more powerful Conservative Chancellor, George Osborne. Just this week, the Business Secretary revealed that he had written to No 11 demanding to know if HM Revenue and Customs had properly investigated HSBC over allegations that the bank’s Swiss arm had indulged in what has been colourfully described elsewhere as “industrial-scale tax evasion”.

Mr Cable was awarded the grade anonymously and relatively even-handedly, given the tribal nature of Her Majesty’s opposition. That C-minus is worth, then, in real money, a C-plus – or, with the help of a distracted invigilator, a B-minus.

Not bad – and those mid-ranking grades are partly a result of the committee’s annoyance that Mr Cable is a master of obfuscation. As one of them puts it: “You feel like you’re getting esoteric arguments rather than facts and figures.”

On Wednesday, Mr Cable faces, barring any big corporate emergencies, his last grilling from the business committee before the general election. This should also be his last-ever hearing as business secretary, for at least five reasons:

*Liberal Democrats will struggle to forge a coalition with a Labour leadership that still dismissively refers to them as “Liberals”;

*A resumption of Tory power-sharing would see the weakening of apparently left-leaning Lib Dems like Mr Cable, who could therefore be demoted;

*There might not be enough of his colleagues left to make them viable partners, in effect usurped by the Scottish National Party on the left or the likes of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists on the right;

*A party so wounded by government might have no more appetite to prop up those with whom it disagrees;

*There is still a possibility of an overall majority for either of the two largest parties, given the fragile nature of an electoral system that was never designed for six-or-more party politics.

The subject of the committee grilling is broad: “work of the department”. Mr Cable could sign off with tales of how he developed a much-needed industrial strategy. He could reel off statistics showing more than 2 million apprentices have been created on his watch. He might dare to argue that falls in the price of Royal Mail stock mean he was he spot-on about the valuation when it was sold off at what appeared a paltry 330p a share. He could boast of globally unique brainwaves like the Green Investment Bank.

The last of these is pouring billions of pounds into all sorts of clean-energy projects, from offshore wind to installing a better boiler in a big whisky distillery in the Highlands. The bank hasn’t got the borrowing powers it needs, but establishing the institution is a start and future governments will build on these remarkable foundations.

Few senior politicians will achieve as much as Mr Cable but a Liberal Democrat is judged to a higher standard, as it is seemingly a once-in-a-lifetime shot at governance. Even Mr Cable, one of Parliament’s mightiest exponents of linguistic smokescreens, will struggle to turn Wednesday into a valedictory address.

The committee will tear into him for failures of policy over the course of this parliament and recent developments that have called into question the day-to-day running of the department. This week might see the Coalition celebrate the joint highest rate of employment, 73.2 per cent, since records started 34 years ago, but next week Mr Cable will have to answer why productivity remains so poor, at 2 per cent below the pre-2008 crisis days.

Could a courier dump some blame on his doorstep?

Mr Cable has not been helped by Robert Chote, the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility, who admitted late last year that the UK has not solved its “productivity puzzle” – why output per worker is persistently weak despite a growing economy. The Business Secretary will be asked why he has not solved that conundrum, despite getting the jobless into work.

On a more recent development, Mr Cable will be questioned over what exactly the Department for Business knew about City Link’s fate in the days and weeks before the private equity-owned courier went into administration on Christmas Day.

In a recent written response to a question by Ann McKechin, the Labour MP for Glasgow North, the Conservative further education and skills minister, Matthew Hancock, admitted that the Department for Business was informed that a “national logistics firm” was in dire trouble earlier in the month.

The Insolvency Service refused to name the company on the basis that the information was “commercially sensitive”, but the business and work and pensions departments, as well as Jobcentre Plus, prepared themselves for the worst.

The counter-argument might well be that rumours of City Link’s problems (never mind that Rentokil was delighted to sell the Coventry-based group to Jon Moulton’s Better Capital only 20 months earlier) mean Mr Cable’s officials would surely have known it was the likeliest candidate for collapse. Plans could have been better tailored.

There have been problems that only an  A-grade Business Secretary could have tackled. But we’ve had precious few of those. On a generous day, Mr Cable just about snaffles a B-minus.

Twitter: @mleftly

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