Vince Cable: Tories are 'seriously irresponsible' for promising EU referendum

Minister says vote is delaying the economic recovery and putting 3.5 million jobs at risk

Political Editor

Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, has branded the Conservatives “seriously irresponsible” for promising a Europe referendum in 2017, claiming the pledge is already causing a “blight” on foreign investment in Britain.

In an interview with The Independent, the Liberal Democrat minister issued his party’s starkest warning yet about the “chilling effect” of David Cameron’s in/out EU referendum, saying it is delaying the economic recovery and putting 3.5 million jobs at risk.

Mr Cable claimed businessmen were now warning him on a daily basis they will invest elsewhere to ensure they retain access to the EU’s single market. “They say ‘we are here because of Europe; we are not just here because of Britain’,” he said. Asked to name names, he cited car-makers Vauxhall, BMW Mini, Ford and Nissan, adding that the same concerns were being expressed in the aerospace industry and City. British, Japanese, American, Indian and German firms had all voiced fears, he said.

Speaking ahead of the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference in York this weekend, Mr Cable accused the Conservatives of being in a “Ukip-induced funk.” He said: “It is seriously irresponsible to put these jobs at risk.”

His talks with business leaders left him in no doubt that the promised 2017 referendum was deterring large-scale business investment. “It is in danger of slowing the recovery. It adds another layer of uncertainty,” he said.

Mr Cable claimed the “inconsistent” Tories were putting the union of the UK at risk by preaching “separatism” in Europe while urging Scotland to reject nationalism. He asked: “How do you expect to persuade the Scots to ignore the siren voices of nationalism and separatism when you indulge in British nationalism and Euro-separatism?”

Addressing a rally at the Lib Dem conference on Friday night, the Business Secretary will mock Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, as a modern day “chief druid". In his interview, Mr Cable said his party will, unusually, ensure that the European Parliament elections in May are fought on EU rather than domestic issues. “It is an existential issue. It is serious. There is a real risk that we could find ourselves outside [the EU], with all the massive costs in terms of jobs. That is why we feel we have a responsibility. It is not an idealistic thing to do; it is the right thing to do,” he said.

Mr Cable doesn’t normally smile much but has reason to feel happy about life. After much heat in his running battle with the Conservatives over the impact of immigration, some light has finally been shone. Yesterday the Government published a study concluding that when the economy is strong, there is “relatively little evidence” that migrants take the jobs of British workers.

The Business Secretary, who extols the economic benefits of immigration, has frequently locked horns with Theresa May, the Home Secretary. But he insisted this is not a “party political issue” between the Coalition partners as he lifted the lid on the Cabinet’s discussions: “I am well aware, from the battles we have fought in government, that most of my Conservative colleagues agree with me. They are reluctant to say so publicly - for obvious reasons of solidarity with the Home Secretary.”

Mr Cable explained: “Theresa May is doing her job. I am not attacking her personally. I have quite a high regard for her as an individual. I don’t criticise her professionalism. I am doing my job – encouraging growth in the economy. That means getting access to highly qualified people, tapping into the world’s talent, encouraging overseas students.”

He hoped yesterday’s report will undermine the Conservatives’ flagship target of reducing annual net migration to less than 100,000 by next year’s general election. He stressed that politicians must address people’s concerns, that he does not favour unlimited immigration and that abuse of the system must be tackled. But he argued that benefit tourism from the EU "is not a major problem” and is “exaggerated” by the Conservatives. He added: “Having these arbitrary targets makes very little sense and is in the process of being discredited. Let’s look at the evidence, the facts. That is why it is important that this document is out there.”

He was most animated when asked about Tory claims he has broken Cabinet ranks on immigration. Admitting he is “angry” about the criticism, he said: “There is no collective responsibility around that target. The Conservative side keep saying it is a government policy. It is not and never has been. So there is no responsibility to defend it.”

Going head-to-head with Ukip and being unashamedly the “party of IN” at the European elections may not prevent bad results for the Lib Dems in May. Some Clegg critics believe that scenario could create a “last chance” to oust him as leader before the general election. Although Mr Cable would be the front-runner to succeed him in such circumstances, he insisted there is no prospect of changing the party’s leader before the election. “I don’t think anybody is questioning it. It is a given,” he said.

Some Lib Dems believe that Mr Cable, by then 72, would be too old to run for the leadership if Mr Clegg stood down after the general election. But he is no mood to rule himself out. “I am really not thinking that far ahead. I have a big task in Government, I have got to hold my seat, like all my colleagues, then we’ll think about who does what,” he said.

Mr Cable admitted to his own “centre-left inclinations” but insisted that the Lib Dems will position themselves as “equidistant” between Labour and the Tories.

Although friends believe he would love to be chancellor in a Lib-Lab Coalition, he described his view about deficit reduction after 2015 as exactly “mid-way” between that of George Osborne and Ed Balls, his Labour shadow. There is reported tension on this issue between Mr Cable and Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Chief Treasury Secretary, but the avuncular Business Secretary does not blame his younger colleague for “doing his job at the Treasury".

Mr Cable described his own position as the “mainstream” one inside the Lib Dems. “The common ground view is that we have not finished the job [on the deficit] yet. We all accept that there is no point in assuming we have reached sunny pastures where we can go round spending lots of money. But constantly tightening the screw once we have dealt with the structural deficit does not seem to be good economics,” he said.

As both Labour and the Tories struggle to make a big breakthrough, Mr Cable believed the Lib Dems have a good chance of being in a position of “significant influence” in the next parliament. “I expect we will do much better at the general election than anyone currently predicts. People will take a second look at us and reflect positively on what we have done,” he said.

However, the Business Secretary conceded that the Lib Dems could not assume they would remain in a full-scale coalition in another hung parliament. Tory and Labour minds are mulling over the benefits of minority government and, possibly, a “confidence and supply” agreement in which the Lib Dems would support the biggest party in key Commons votes but would not serve as ministers. “There are different circumstances [to 2010]. We are no longer dealing with the same degree of national emergency. The problems are still quite serious, but not quite like 2010,” he said. “We are not drawing red lines about whether we must be in or out [of government]. We are looking at all the options.”

Mr Cable, once a Labour adviser, confirmed that Labour’s hostility towards the Lib Dems for entering the Coalition has now eased. He said: “Labour is less tribal. In the early days of the Coalition Government, Labour was quite appalling, shouting ‘treachery’ and ‘betrayal’ at us – it was childish and very unpleasant. That has certainly changed. Labour is much more politically savvy now. I think we could do business with it, as we have with the Conservatives.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser