Union fury after Cable urges restraint over industrial action

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Vince Cable was licking his wounds last night after a miscalculated speech ended in union activists subjecting him to a torrent of heckles and catcalls.

The Business Secretary intended to deliver a friendly warning to the GMB conference that a summer of industrial militancy could play into the hands of right-wing Tories agitating for fresh anti-strike legislation. Instead, to the dismay of senior Liberal Democrats, he was cast in the role of union-bashing hard man telling them to act responsibly or rue the consequences.

Mr Cable urged delegates not to believe the advance headlines about his speech. But the passage – in which he warned that ministers could face pressure to toughen up union laws if strikes did serious economic damage – still provoked fury. Union leaders accused him of threatening human rights and protested that his intervention had soured the atmosphere ahead of talks with ministers over resolving a dispute over cuts to public-sector pensions.

It was the fourth time in a fortnight that ill-considered words by the Business Secretary have angered colleagues.