Is Vince Cable a genius at spin, or did he just get lucky and hit a news vacuum? One bit of sixth-form Adam Smith economics on the perversity of capitalism in the pre-released text of a speech and bingo, he is on the front page of the Daily Mail, condemned by the CBI (Capitalist and Business Interests), darling of the Liberal Democrat conference and subject of a hundred favourable commentaries. The biggest story to emerge from Liverpool last week was the Second Coming of the Messiah, as Cable is affectionately known by party delegates.
It was such a big story that it eclipsed two rather more important stories of the conference. One was that the backlash that many people expected to see against the coalition with hard-faced Tory cutters failed to materialise; the other is that Nick Clegg played it straight. The Lib Dem leader made no attempt to woo back the 40 per cent of people who voted Lib Dem in May but who now regret it. Clegg basically told them that if they didn't like it they could vote Labour, and he told his party that it had no future positioning itself to the left of Miliband. His party, disappointing the expectations of some journalists, didn't have a problem with that. Except.... There was just a little itch somewhere that it wanted to scratch. And that is where Twinkle, the fairy godfather, came in.
Vince Cable is not exactly a sultan of the sinister arts of media manipulation, but he does have a feel for politics. It is an intuition so subtle that it can often be mistaken for luck. I do not believe that he had any idea how much impact that one sentence in his speech would have. After all, for anyone with any knowledge of economics, "Capitalism takes no prisoners and kills competition where it can" is a banal simplification of an orthodox view. But I guess that he sensed an open goal.
Reporters were attuned to a left-wing revolt story and had failed to find it on the conference floor. Clegg had done his big speech. At the fringe meetings, the best the Bletchley Park code breakers of the media could find was a hint from Chris Huhne, Clegg's leadership rival last time, that the plan to eliminate the deficit in four years might be flexible: "I've never ever known one Red Book the same as the next – any Chancellor has to take account of the circumstances." By Tuesday lunchtime, a lot of people wanted to get on the train and follow Charles Kennedy home.
That is where luck came in, because the Liberal Democrat press office still operates with the enthusiastic innocence of a party that isn't even the official opposition, let alone a party of government. Because Cable had, unusually, written his speech in advance, the press office issued extracts 24 hours before the Business Secretary was due to stand at the podium. The result was marvellous to behold. Not just because there was a shortage of political news but of other news as well. The Daily Mail's second story on Wednesday morning was "Les Dawson's Widow Faces Probe Over Benefits".
There was something in the Cable story for every newspaper. Guardian columnists for whom the role of the state and its sister cliché, the role of the market, are meat and drink could toast an old-style social democrat; the red tops could bracket Red Vince with Red Ed and Red Ken and use the word Marxist, more for the sake of nostalgia and jollification than for anything corresponding to what the comrades used to call the objective conditions. And anyone could join in, no matter what positions they had taken before. Adair Turner, a former director general of the CBI, who said last year that some banking activity was "socially useless", now doubled back and told Cable off for his "demonisation" of overpaid traders.
There is no need here to add to the mountain of comment on Cable's actual words, except to point out that, even if it is not universally accepted that capitalism has an inherent tendency to "kill competition", nearly everyone accepts the need for tough laws to protect against monopolies. The difficult bit is how to deal with the market failure in bankers' pay that encouraged a few to take risks that passed the understanding of their employers and regulators. On that, the speech was silent. Elsewhere, it was unimpressive. Did Cable not recognise that there might be a contradiction in government policy on the banks, to "make them safe and make them lend"? And force them to lend to whom?
But that did not matter on the night – the night before the speech was delivered, that is – or in the hall on Wednesday, or in the BBC Question Time studio on Thursday night. It helped the Lib Dems – and the coalition as a whole – to sound annoyed about "spivs and gamblers" in the City without having to do anything about them. Cable can do it because he is a trained economist and a secular saint who foresaw the credit crunch. And he can do ballroom dancing.
All politics is showbusiness, of course, but there is an authenticity about Cable. An earnestness and a sparkle of wit that makes him stand out among the two-dimensional politicians of the age. Remember, if you can cast your mind that far back, the start of the general election campaign this year. Nick Clegg had made so little an impression on the public in his two-and-a-half years as leader that Cable was given joint billing at the Lib Dem launch.
All forgotten after the televised debates, naturally, as Clegg showed himself a Blairite of the thespian arts (and he was full of those actorly tics of spontaneity again in his speech in Liverpool last week). After the election, there was the curious incident of Cable's resignation as deputy leader of the party, and the Business Secretary seemed to settle for a quieter life. Now he is back.
Of course, his return says as much about the inanities of the capitalist media as it does about him, but a Cabinet minister who can exploit such an opportunity, without really meaning to, is a huge asset to the Government.
John Rentoul blogs at: www.independent.co.uk/jrentoulReuse content