When Vince Cable took his life in his hands and suggested that £5m a year for singing and dancing and being good-looking might be quite hard to justify, morally speaking, the interesting thing wasn’t his initial observation, which seems to be utterly indisputable. The interesting thing was the retraction.
“I don’t want to attack One Direction,” Mr Cable said, in the process of explaining that he had misheard his inquisitor and thought he was being asked about chief executives. (You can feel his words vibrate with anxiety at the prospect of a million rabid Directioners, all of them desperate to give Harry Styles more of their money, marching on Westminster.) “This is one particular group who are apparently very popular and very successful. So I have nothing against them.”
The key word in his feeble retreat is that redundant “apparently”, and, as with most political words, it carries more weight than it seems to. My mum is my bellwether for these things, and my mum knows who One Direction are, and that they are very popular. Vince Cable is definitely as well-informed about pop culture as my mum: plus, he’s been on Strictly Come Dancing. I am simply not buying the idea that a teenage SpAd had to whisper the band’s identity in his ear. I’m not saying he’s a huge fan of “What Makes You Beautiful” but I’m pretty sure he’s familiar with their existence. So when he says “apparently”, he’s not ruefully noting his own high-court-judgishness; he’s making a political play. Vince Cable wants to corner the market in Uncle Fuddly.
It’s a notable development, this. As a rule, our politicians have in recent years been at desperate pains to present themselves as hipper than anyone who spent their university years in the NUS is ever likely to be; that trend hit an early nadir with Gordon Brown’s claims of affection for Leona Lewis, and hasn’t really gone away since. But now, possibly anxious at his association with a government led by the sort of juvenile spivs who might actually like that sort of thing, Mr Cable is striking out in the opposite direction.
Even if he weren’t at risk from the frenzies of the Directioners, you could see the political wisdom in it. One day, Vince wants to lead his party, and when set against the boyish Nick Clegg (Desert Island Disc: Shakira), his main virtue is his air of frumpish solidity; there’s no point in undermining that, at an immensely serious time, with even the faintest awareness of the charts. Still, it’s a shame. His initial point was an entirely fair one, and if we’re going to get in a tizzy about chief executives’ excessive pay awards, it seems entirely reasonable to cast the net of shame a little wider. I certainly wouldn’t want Mr Cable legislating on One Direction’s pay. But I wish he felt he could start a conversation about it without the political triangulation.