Mystic Vince, a man of hidden depths

The man who predicted a financial crash five years ago says his party is not in the business of forecasting ... but he's tipping Joe Calzaghe to win 'Strictly'
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The Independent Online

When you're in the presence of someone like Vince Cable, the man who predicted the global economic crisis five years ago, it is tempting to get him to use his powers of foresight and see into the future.

So, who does he think will win Strictly Come Dancing?

As everybody knows, Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader and Treasury spokesman, is a bit of a ballroom dancing smoothie, who last year was filmed quickstepping with Alesha Dixon in behind-the-scenes footage for the BBC series. His hopes of appearing have been dashed by impartiality rules, so he has had to contend with his reputation as a sage on the economy.

When he stood in as Lib Dem leader during the autumn of 2007, Cable became a star of the one-liners, including Gordon Brown's change "from Stalin to Mr Bean". Since the economic crash a year ago, he has enjoyed a new level of fame, albeit in a world where Robert Peston is a heart-throb. One of only a few to see the economic crisis coming, even Cable did not know how big it would be. In his bestseller The Black Swan, author Nicholas Taleb coined the term "black swan" to denote rare, significant and unpredictable events like the global collapse of the financial system.

Cable was Westminster's own ballroom-dancing black swan, a tangoing portent of doom, and a well-liked MP at a time when the popularity of politicians has never been so low. He began to overshadow his party leader Nick Clegg.

Yet in his office last week, Cable seems a little weary of his image as a soothsayer. He's reckless enough to tip a winner for Strictly Come Dancing – the boxer Joe Calzaghe "looks very good" – but he refuses to predict what will happen to the economy over the next two years.

"I don't want to present myself or the party as a forecasting agency. That's not our job, that's not what we're in politics for," he says, sounding a little irritated.

"The fact that our analysis was right was relevant, but I'm not here to say what will turn up in five months' or 10 months' time. I don't want to sound too smug about this, I don't want to think I, or anyone else, anticipated the extent to which collapse of this model would cause so much damage."

The Liberal Democrats are, arguably, the opposite of the black-swan phenomenon. Outside of the leadership wars of the middle of this decade, which saw Charles Kennedy and Sir Menzies Campbell depart in unhappy circumstances, the third party has specialised, as a matter of routine, in not being noticed.

The Lib Dems were in Bournemouth yesterday for their final autumn conference before the general election. Conference week is the only time apart from elections and leadership crises that the Lib Dems get decent coverage. Yet, more than ever, this year they need to make an impact as they face being squeezed by a seemingly unstoppable Conservative Party. In the polls, they linger below 20 per cent – when Charles Kennedy fought the 2005 election, the party was on 23 per cent, which translated into a post-war record of 62 seats. But if David Cameron doesn't get a landslide, Clegg and Cable could hold the balance of power in a hung parliament.

With Labour's vote collapsing, there is an assumption that Clegg would be more likely to join with Cameron rather than prop up a tired and unpopular Labour government. But Cable says that a coalition with Labour should not be ruled out – even if the Tories are the largest party.

"Our broad approach is that we are willing to sit down and talk to both Labour and the Tories without favour, and decide how best to deal with the situation in the national interest and to maintain stability and be completely constructive. We're not pushing for one side or the other."

Cable supported Gordon Brown over the fiscal stimulus, but thinks the Prime Minister has failed to rein in the banks. He is more scathing of the Tories' Euroscepticism, "apparent lack of concern about unemployment" and refusal to offer electoral reform.

It sounds as if Cable would not turn down the job of Chancellor in a Lib/Lab coalition, but the MP insists the party remains "equidistant" between Labour and the Tories.

However, this is a slight shift in emphasis from what Clegg said last week, of taking on Labour in their heartlands in the North, rather than fighting the Tories in the South-west.

Where they do seem to agree is on "tough choices" for spending cuts. Cable says: "You have to start from Ground Zero and ask the basic question: can every bit of the public sector justify its existence?" Public services must be placed in local government hands. "Some of them will make bad choices; there will be differences." The Lib Dems are also holding off on their policy of joining the euro for a "few years", until the dust has settled on the financial crisis. Cable says he is pro-European, but does not believe in an EU "super-state", in contrast to Clegg's near-zealous pro-Europeanism.

Does Cable still regret not standing as leader, after his success as interim chief between Ming Campbell's resignation and Clegg's election in 2007? Campbell stood down as he felt he was too old, and many thought Cable did not run because he was of a similar vintage.

"I am perfectly content with what I do. People are happy with Nick, he's doing very well, and there's no longer an issue around leadership."

For all his supposed economic brilliance and the ballroom stardust, Cable comes across as very steady, a little dull, even – unless he is hiding it all beneath the surface.

When Charles Kennedy's 2005 election manifesto launch took place at the punishing hour of 7am, the then Lib Dem leader fluffed his lines when discussing the party's policy on local income tax. Cable was standing at the back of the room watching his leader, shaking his head, and muttering under his breath: "No, no, that's not right."

Six months later, it was Cable – in a funereal black trilby and full-length mac – who solemnly walked down the Commons committee corridor into Kennedy's office with a list of MPs' signatures telling him to step aside.

Has the party recovered from that period and the later resignation of Campbell?

"Yes. They were very difficult episodes and I was in the middle of both and it was very difficult. People say, 'well, why aren't you doing better?' Actually, if you look at our poll ratings which are averaging around 18 to 19 per cent – compared with comparable stages of earlier parliaments, we're doing extremely well, and if Labour continues to perform as badly, there is potentially a big major opportunity in the next year."

Outside politics, 66-year-old Cable's hinterland is well-documented: he helped deliver a calf on the New Forest farm of his second wife Rachel; he is a bee-keeper who has warned about the collapse of colonies. His first wife, Olympia, died of cancer days after the 2001 election.

He tells me the book he keeps on his bedside table is The Girl Who Played with Fire, by the late revolutionary socialist Swedish crime writer Stieg Larsson. It is about a bisexual, tattooed crime-fighter.

Of course, there is also the dancing. Last Christmas, his long-term teacher retired and it wasn't until recently that he found a replacement – one of the leading Latin dancing teachers in the country, who is guiding him through the steps of the Argentine tango.

Is that similar to the everyday tango? "No, no, completely different. It's a very interesting, very distinctive kind of dance," he says, before adding, slightly bashfully: "Very, you know, very erotic actually."

Later, I look up the routine to the Argentine tango: "The top half remains fairly calm and static, while the lower half is active and frenetic,"

Funnily enough, a bit like a swan. Hidden depths, after all.

Cable's progress

1943 Born in York.

1961 Studies natural sciences and economics at Cambridge.

1971 Marries Olympia Rebelo, a Kenyan Asian. They have two sons and a daughter.

1970s Becomes a Labour councillor in Glasgow.

1979 Beaten by Ken Livingstone for nomination as Labour parliamentary candidate for Hampstead.

1982 Leaves Labour Party to join SDP.

1992 Stands unsuccessfully as Liberal Democrat candidate for Twickenham.

1997 Elected MP for Twickenham.

2001 Olympia dies of cancer.

2003 Appointed Lib Dem Treasury spokesman. Warns about the instability of banks and over-reach of household debt.

2004 Marries Rachel Smith.

2005 Collects signatures of Lib Dem MPs unhappy with Charles Kennedy, who eventually resigns in 2006.

2006 Becomes deputy leader under Sir Menzies Campbell, above, in addition to Treasury spokesman.

2007 Becomes interim leader for two months after the resignation of Campbell; says in Commons that Gordon Brown has gone from "Stalin to Mr Bean".

2008 Earns widespread praise for his response to the economic crisis.

2009 The Storm, his book on the crisis, is published.