Another sign that the Lib Dems are maturing as a party is that on Monday they had their very own top-level split drama. Only, this being the Lib Dems, it wasn’t all that dramatic.
We heard that Business Secretary Vince Cable wasn’t going to turn up for a big economic debate because he didn’t want to vote against a couple of fairly harmless “left-wing” amendments he rather agreed with, and he didn’t understand why Nick Clegg was opposing them – especially since one did little more than imply taxes as well as spending cuts should be used to reduce the deficit, and another sought a target of building 300,000 new houses.
The official explanation would be that he was “working on his speech” for later in the day. This is the party conference equivalent of telling Clegg you are washing your hair, or Peter Cook’s riposte to a dinner invitation from the late David Frost: “Hang on, I’ll just check my diary. Oh dear, I find I’m watching television that night.”
Except that instead of excitingly sulking, Achilles-like, in his tent, Cable decided to turn up in the middle of the debate and, pursued by the photographers, managed to find himself a seat. He proceeded to vote against the amendments just as Clegg, possibly setting the whole thing up as a Tony Blair-style “test” of his leadership, had wanted in the first place. If Cable was discomfited by this retreat he showed no sign of it in his big speech, dispelling any lingering doubts that he would feel more comfortable in coalition with Labour, the party he once represented as a councillor here in Glasgow.
He didn’t put it that way, of course, and even tilted briefly at his former party’s “unhealthy tribalism and Tammany Hall political machine”. But so unbridled were his attacks on his Conservative colleagues that you couldn’t help wondering how he sits round the Cabinet table with them.
The “Tea-Party Tories” had “reverted to type: dog-whistle politics, orchestrated by an Australian Rottweiler”, and “deep down they believe there is no alternative to unhindered individual self-interest”. And “their core demographic excludes pretty much anyone who wouldn’t have qualified for the vote before the 1867 Reform Act.”
He also paid homage – if jocularly – to a few of leftism’s household gods, proclaiming of his Green Investment and Business Banks that “even Tony Benn couldn’t claim to have launched two state-owned banks”.
David Cameron had said he was a “Jeremiah”, but had forgotten that “Jeremiah was right: he warned that Jerusalem would be over-run by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar”.
Cable went off in a different direction, warning of invasions by estate agents and bankers. But was he secretly envisaging the Labour hordes routing their opponents, including his leader, in 2015? And as the Babylonians were to Jeremiah, being jolly nice to him after their victory?