Vince Cable: Cult leader

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The eulogies poured forth. "Vince Cable was superb. Again. He is a golden interlude in Lib Dem history. He is a holiday in Tuscany." (Simon Carr, The Independent). "This is Vincent Cable's moment. He has shown himself to be one of the classiest politicians in the Commons. Whoever wins the race to replace him will struggle to do half as well. Perhaps he should simply keep the job." (Leading article, the Guardian). "As for Mr Cable, the stand-in had again proved himself unexpectedly dangerous in debate. Let me repeat what I have said all along: Liberal Democrats are mad to consider anyone else for their leader. (Quentin Letts, the Daily Mail).

Welcome to that strangest of modern political crazes: The Cult of Cable. The Liberal Democrats' Acting Leader and Shadow Chancellor has done far, far better than anyone could have expected, possibly including himself, when he found himself in the leadership job after Sir Menzies Campbell's unwilling departure last month. When asked how he's enjoying the challenge, he answers, in typical self-deprecatory and laconic style that "I don't think enjoyment is the word. It's something like fast downhill skiing it's exhilarating, but you can fall over any second. There are no brakes".

Still, as he puts it, "we all enjoy flattery" and he evinces a quiet satisfaction that his acting leadership has seen the party tick up in the polls. He did, in fact, want the job for good. "I did consider standing. I canvassed opinion and, after what happened to Ming, colleagues felt they couldn't have someone from the same generation and that they wanted to skip a generation. I accepted the political reality". After the dust settles and either Chris Huhne or Nick Clegg is elected leader on 15 December, Cable expects to settle back into his old job, shadowing Alistair Darling.

If only they'd had more faith in Vince, but perhaps it was understandable after Ming Campbell was being, in Cable's words, "kicked to pieces by the media. We all discussed it. Ming was a serious professional with real gifts and immense knowledge". After Gordon Brown pulled the great election that never was, "that changed the parameters", says Cable, though he maintains that he was "keen" that Campbell continued. He was also, he says, one of those "more reluctant" to see the back of Charles Kennedy's boozy leadership in 2006, but he concedes he was collecting signatures on a letter to Kennedy expressing the view that his position wasn't sustainable.

Cable commands adulation from right-wing commentators who, but a few months ago, were happy to declare that he could bore for England. ("Successful shadow chancellors have to be boring. I save my non-boring side for family and friends.") Yet now Vince has convinced the doubters. He has been having some unexpected fun at Gordon Brown's expense.

The Government's weaknesses over Northern Rock in particular have played to Cable's strengths. As a former chief economist at Shell, and possessed of an acidic turn of phrase, he has had plenty of opportunity to expose the fallacies and faint hopes of the Government's bail-out of the stricken mortgage bank. He dragged the Chancellor virtually kicking and screaming to the despatch box to account for what could still turn out to be a disastrous waste of public money.

But it was his cruel ridicule of the prime minister that has propelled Cable from being merely an excellent Treasury spokes-man into the role of "best leader the Lib Dems never had". This was how Hansard recorded the Cable demolition of the once-invincible Brown: "Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): The House has noticed the Prime Minister's remarkable transformation in the past few weeks from Stalin to Mr. Bean [Laughter] creating chaos out of order, rather than order out of chaos."

It wasn't original the Bean line had cropped up in the press but no matter. Mr Cable could see its destructive potential, and he duly deployed it, complete with his customary "vulpine grin", as the parliamentary sketchwriters had it.

It was indeed a characteristically dry, witty, slightly mordant performance. It also seems almost a betrayal, given that some 35 years ago Mr Cable and Gordon Brown were both young Labour firebrands collaborating on a book called The Red Papers for Scotland. Brown was the editor, naturally, and precocious student-rector of Edinburgh University at the time; Cable was working on his PhD and a Glasgow councillor and wrote about inner-city deprivation an d poverty. Robin Cook was another contributor.

Cable remembers Brown as clever, intense and idealistic, though he didn't know him well and "I didn't pick up how far he would go". An early belief in "social justice" was something Cable also had in common with the other Labour leader he has worked with, John Smith. In the late 1970s while Smith was Trade Secretary in the Callaghan government, Cable served as his special adviser. Cable recalls Smith as "a big man with good judgment and would not, I think, have dumped Labour's social democratic traditions like Blair".

Cable has, however, dumped a few traditions of his own. A liberal at university, he then turned to Labour, standing as a candidate in the 1970 election. When, after the Social Democratic Party/Liberal Alliance was formed in 1981, as the moderates decided they couldn't put up with "Bennery" any longer, he threw his lot in with them, and has stuck with the successor Liberal Democrats ever since.

Thus he seems to have gone from being someone who abandoned Old Labour because it was too left-wing to now attacking New Labour for not being left-wing enough. For example, on Brown, he has asked, "How is it that a politician with such an obvious commitment to fairness and social justice is presiding over a tax system where the bottom 30 per cent are paying more in tax than the top 30 per cent?"

But we needn't exaggerate Cable's leftist credentials. He calls himself an "open-markets economist" and contributed to the Orange Book, the revisionist tome normally associated with what can loosely be called the free-markets tendency of the Liberal Democrats.

He seems always to have held such views. When he left Fitzwilliam College Cambridge, where he collected a degree in Natural Sciences and took in a stint as president of the Cambridge Union, he took himself off to Kenya. "A plum job at that time was with the Overseas Development Institute, who needed young graduates to help the newly independent Commonwealth nations to govern themselves until their own undergraduates came though".

He and hi s colleagues in Nairobi were "ludicrously overpromoted" for such "horrendous responsibility". "One of my first tasks in working life was drafting a document called "Socialism in Africa" actually a manifesto for private enterprise and it is probably the most responsible job I have ever done." He went along to Jomo Kenyatta's rallies just to hear his deep, mellifluous oratory.

It was partly through this work that he married his first wife, Olympia, who died six years ago from breast cancer. "I grew up in York, a city which was then almost entirely white ... Then in the 1960s came the university bringing overseas students of which the first (literally) was my late wife Olympia, a Goan from Kenya whose arrival in the city, wearing a salwar kameez, merited front-page coverage in the local press. We met and fell in love and then married in her home town of Nairobi."

But Cable's father did not react well to the match. "He progressed from puzzled politeness to anger once it became apparent that he was to have an Asian daughter-in-law. When we came home as a married couple his rage and her pride fuelled a row of epic proportions. We did not communicate again for many years." Cable and his wife had a daughter and two sons, one of whom, Paul Cable, is an opera singer. After Olympia died, Cable was "gutted" but he has found love again.

Tellingly perhaps, he was sticking to his liberal principles when he spoke at a United Nations forum in the New Forest, at which he found himself arguing in favour of free trade against a vociferous lady farmer who pleaded the case of New Zealand butter and wanted to know how she was supposed to make a living. The row was resolved when he agreed to visit her farm. She, Rachel, a divorcee , is now the second Mrs Cable.

Cable's other passion is ballroom dancing. This parliamentary twinkletoes has a cupboard full of trophies for a pastime he took up about 15 years ago with his first wife, as they found themselves in early middle age with the children grown up. He now collects his medals and passes dancing exams with his teacher. Twice a week he goes in for an hour of what he calls "hard dancing". The quickstep is apparently the most exhausting ("It looks easier than it is") while the samba has a "tricky rhythm". "I would love to do Strictly Come Dancing and put Craig Revel Horwood in his place. I dance for pleasure, to relax, keep fit, and socialise".

Could a little more fancy footwork have delivered the leadership? Maybe, but the press, as Sir Menzies Campbell discovered, is a capricious mistress. For years they heaped on the compliments about Ming's exquisitely-cut suits and stentorian pronouncements on foreign affairs, lobbying constantly on his behalf for the top job. Then came the kicking. Maybe Vince is doing so well because he hasn't got much to lose: "If you're an acting leader, you can afford to take risks. Perhaps every leader should think of themselves as being temporary," says Olly Grender, former party spin doctor. Maybe Chris Huhne or Nick Clegg will prove temporary too, in which case the loyal deputy will be able to stand in again, and the Cult of Cable will enjoy its second coming.

A Life in Brief

Born 9 May, 1943, York

Education: Nunthorpe Grammar School in York. Reads Natural Science and Economics at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University, and elected President of the Union in 1965. Completes PhD in Economics at Glasgow University

Career: Worked for Kenyan government before returning to Glasgow to serve as a Labour councillor. Is special adviser to then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, John Smith. Joins the Social Democrat Party. In 1990 begins working for Shell and is appointed its Chief Economist in 1995. Enters parliament in 1997 as Lib-Dem MP for Twickenham. Elected deputy leader of the party in 2006 and becomes acting leader after Ming Campbell's resignation earlier this year

He says: 'My political thinking has perhaps been most influenced by the great economists who have sought to reconcile economic liberalism with wider moral values and social justice'

They say: 'He's been outstanding. By taking risks he's shown how we can get our message across' Lib-Dem MP Danny Alexander