Oh you nearly men - how different history could have been for Vince Cable and his like

Vince Cable seems destined to join the great lost leaders in the ghostly halls where political dreams go to die. There he will flit alongside Rab Butler and David Miliband


There comes a time for even the most delusional member of the pontificating classes (“The Poncetariat”) when an unpalatable fact must be faced. In the matter of Vince Cable and the Liberal Democrat leadership, it arrived on Monday. After years of telling Liberal Democrats to replace Nick Clegg with Vince before the next general election (and indeed before the last one; one strives for consistency), it became plain that they have no wish to obey.

Why political movements refuse to follow the advice of chaps like me, who know so very little and have achieved infinitely less, is a mystery that need not detain us. Suffice it to record that to be blessed with self-acknowledged omniscience but not a shred of omnipotence to go with it is a curse. This is something which Vince makes no secret of finding a burden himself.

The wisest of old birds has been playing Jeremiah again at his party’s conference in Glasgow. Since David Cameron referred to him as such last week, many hacks have become experts on that Hebraic figure through the miracle of Wikipedia. Allow me to add to the wealth of original research by reporting that this geezer – whose warnings about Nebuchadnezzar sacking Jerusalem were ignored, yea even as Vince’s warnings about the coming financial apocalypse – was known to his mates as “the Weeping Prophet”.

Whether or not Vince is a dishonoured prophet given to blubbing I have no idea, strong emotions patently bubble away beneath the gloomsome Dickensian ledger clerk facade, as his soulful Foxtrot on Strictly Come Dancing made crystal clear. Yet there was nothing graceful or fluent about his conference quickstep on Monday, when after refusing to attend an economic debate in protest at the leadership’s refusal to support a couple of vaguely left-leaning amendments, he not only showed up but voted with Nick Clegg.

You could weep for Vince. This public humiliation, followed by an uncharacteristically lukewarm reception for his characteristically acidic platform speech about Tory wickedness, seemed to mark the end of his leadership hopes. When he later told Steve Richards that it was possible that the Coalition will dissolve before the next election, it had the cloying flavour of desperate wishful thinking.

Why this is so I frankly find perplexing, but Nick Clegg is now entirely secure in his post. Unless he steps under a bus within 18 months – and whatever his inadequacies, Mr Clegg appears to have mastered his Green Cross Code – he will lead his party into the election. God knows what mathematical mayhem that will produce. But even if it produces the Labour-Lib Dem coalition from which Vince has subtly positioned himself to benefit, it is most unlikely that a party membership already audibly tiring of his charms would elect a man who will then be 72.

So it is that Vince Cable seems destined to join the great lost leaders in the ghostly halls where political dreams go to die. There he will flit alongside some imposing figures stretching back to Rab Butler, twice denied the Tory leadership for which he had been strong favourite, and some weenier ones like David Miliband, whose ninnyish phobia for wielding the axe twice spooked him out of seizing the crown.

It is the fate of lost leaders that history judges them less for what they achieved than for what they might have achieved. Their legends, like the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who, feed on a kind a potential energy from the leadership that never was, and their fascination lies in the intriguing what-ifs their failures provoke.

What, for instance, if Denis Healey had won the Labour leadership in 1980, rather than lost to Michael Foot by a whisker? That fearsome bruiser might have crushed the far left years before Neil Kinnock began the process, thus preventing the split that led to the formation of the SDP, which crippled Labour by taking a quarter of the popular vote at the ensuing election.

In that case, with a manifesto a million miles from the longest suicide note in history, and regardless of Mrs Thatcher’s post-Falklands recreation as Brittania, Labour would probably have returned to power in 1983. For better or worse, this would be a very different country today.

The same seems certain had John Smith’s heart had the patriotic decency to continue to beat. He would unquestionably have become Prime Minister in 1997, even if Michael Portillo, that proto-David Miliband, had not chickened out of assassinating John Major. It is unimaginable that this beguilingly cynical, slightly puritanical, dependably cautious Scottish bank manager archetype would have presided over the horrors – the autocratic centralism, the love of money, the passion for crazy military adventurism – that created the messianic mess deposited on all us all by Mr Tony Blair.

At the Cabinet table beside Vince sits, for now at least, the adorably girthular figure of Kenneth Clarke. What if he had won the Tory leadership, at his second attempt, in 2003? Had a single MP switched sides, he would have faced Portillo rather than Iain Duncan Smith in the run-off vote of the full party membership. “The members would have had the crisis of conscience of their lives,” he once drolly put it to me. “Were they more Europhobic than homophobic, or more hompophobic than Europhobic?” His money was on homophobic, in which case a Tory party led by a popular and trusted moderate who opposed the Iraqi calamity from the start might well have beaten a wounded Blair in 2005.

On the other side of the House of Commons from Vince, meanwhile, sits a disengaged Alan Johnson. Like the elder Milibandroid, he lacked the killer instinct to take out Gordon in 2009, though in his case less through cowardice than the absurdly misplaced intellectual inferiority complex that so often haunts extremely clever people who never went to university. Everybody likes the chilled-out rocker. He’s the only cool politician we have. With his compelling story of bread-and-dripping childhood poverty, in which his utterly heroic elder sister, Linda, kept him from being taken into care when they were orphaned, he would have very likely have led Labour back to power, possibly in coalition with the Lib Dems, against an unconvincing Old Etonian in 2010.

And what if Vince had not ruled himself out of the running after Ming Campbell was removed, and before his own sparkling sting as acting leader? His record as the Jeremiah of macroeconomics and lethally mordant debating style would, I suspect, have brought the Lib Dems the breakthrough to three figures in the Commons, and entirely changed the game.

It was not to be, and now it apparently never will be. We will never know whether Vince Cable would have been a triumph or disaster in the post, and perhaps there is consolation in that to dry any tears the Hoofing Prophet might be tempted to shed. Jonathan Powell famously told Boris Johnson, back in 2004, that it was a “Shakespearean tragedy” that Gordon Brown was destined to join the great lost leaders. The tragedy for Gordon, as it of course turned out, was that he did not.

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