Vince Cable has had the luck as a politician to see some of his enemies spontaneously combust. Bob Diamond. Rupert Murdoch. Er… Nick Clegg?
Perish the thought, of course. As the two men – so inseparable you wondered whether either was prepared to let the other out of his sight – toured the Ricardo hi-tech engineering plant in Shoreham yesterday, Clegg seemed the chattier, Cable the more subdued, preoccupied perhaps by his imminent Big Speech.
We searched, largely in vain, for a twitch of mutually hostile body language. Asked, twice, about Boris Johnson's mischief-making call in yesterday's Daily Telegraph for the Lib Dem leader to be preserved for the nation, Clegg preceded his game dismissal of the London Mayor's intervention by describing him as the "nation's greatest celebrity politician". Could this have been an ultra-subtle dig at Vince – Boris's main rival for this dubious title?
Who can tell? Certainly Cable yesterday eschewed overt Borisian self-aggrandisement at the expense of his leader. Instead, his speech showed distinct signs of Vince having it both ways. In the Government but not wholly of it. In particular, he indulged in a bout of only somewhat circumspect – and from the floor, well applauded – Tory-bashing.
His best and unscripted joke, "Not now, Ed", came as he seemed to reach for his mobile phone after an unrepentant reference to his SMS flirtation with the Labour leader. He regarded it as a "badge of honour" to have been the minister most Tory activists wanted removed. And to have seen off the "head-bangers who want a hire-and-fire culture and seem to find sacking people an aphrodisiac".
But it was in his forecast of a likely hung parliament after the next election that it was possible for conspiracy theorists to see a nascent problem for Clegg. Cable pointed to Labour's "reasonable" poll ratings while summarising everything that went wrong with Labour's 13 years in office.
Cable added that Labour had "scarcely begun the long march" back from its demise. You had a sense that it was a long march he wouldn't mind putting his boots on for when the moment came. And the unspoken corollary might have just been that Labour would find him a more congenial partner than Clegg. After all, had Boris, shamelessly stirring the pot as only Boris can, not written that morning that Clegg was "probably a natural Tory"?