Matthew Norman: A very clever twit – and a proud man

By the narrowest of margins Vince Cable's political neck has, for now, avoided being placed in a noose and duly broken

Share
Related Topics

If Vince Cable foxtrots across the set of Strictly Come Dancing on Christmas Day half as quickly as the tale of his unfortunate remarks moved yesterday, he and his partner, Erin Boag, will make Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire look like John Sergeant and Ann Widdecombe.

In one of his less incendiary remarks to the two Daily Telegraph reporters who posed as young mums in his constituency surgery, Vince referred disapprovingly to the "breakneck" pace of the changes, in health, welfare, local government and so on, the Coalition is introducing. By the narrowest of margins, his own political neck has, for now, avoided being placed in a noose and duly broken. And no wonder.

Without claiming to understand precisely what the fallout will be, it is obvious that something revealing happened at Westminster yesterday. The Business Secretary's brush with the sack crystallised the extent to which these political times are more fascinating and unpredictable than any in modern history, with even the short-term potential outcomes for the three main parties Byzantine in their complexities. Had Vince been fired, the scary prospect of him leading a splinter group of Liberal Democrat MPs, either as an independent parliamentary force or in some form of alliance with Labour, and activating the "nuclear" option he mentioned to The Daily Telegraph's undercover reporters by bringing down the Government, would have become an odds-on likelihood. It appears from his survival in the Cabinet, however embarrassed and undermined by a de facto demotion, that he did not exaggerate his central importance to this administration one iota.

He has made his own dissatisfaction with the Coalition so plain almost from the moment it was formed, mooching around for months looking more curmudgeonly than Ebenezer Scrooge, that you wonder whether on some level he actively wished to be sacked.

So reckless was he, in speaking with such deranged candour, even to those he took to be friendly constituents, that you half suspect a subconscious attempt at suicide by hack. Often when politicians are caught with their flies open, one senses a semi-deliberate, barely disguised dash for freedom. With Vince, all that was open was his mouth – but what a capacious gob it is. The fact that he prefaced some of his remarks with a poignant "I am not expecting you to quote this outside" establishes that he was aware of the dangers but preferred to ignore them.

But perhaps that's pretentious rot, and it was nothing more than the mounting arrogance of which his colleagues often whisper. Vastly as many of us admire Vince for his intellect, integrity and (opening his heart to complete strangers aside) judgment, and for the strength he showed in long nursing his first wife through terminal cancer, there appears an element of truth in this. Hailed as an economic genius for predicting the global economic crash, and then as a comic titan for the "Stalin to Mr Bean" Exocet he targeted at Gordon Brown while acting leader, it is small wonder if the lavish praise turned his head. Vanity is a quality not unknown, so I'm told, among politicians, however austere and ungrand they may be. And this, gawd bless us one and all, is one magnificent ego.

If the natural sympathy for him comes heavily seasoned with irritation, it isn't purely over the conceit, however justified, about his own significance. That Vince wears two wedding rings is a genuinely touching symbol of loyalty to his late wife, as well as to the incumbent Mrs Cable. But he cannot forever continue by doing the equivalent in his ministerial role, by ostensibly paying equal respect to the centre-left principles from which necessity has widowed him, and to his present political marriage of convenience. Nor can he endlessly flit about the outer reaches of the Cabinet, semi- detached, like the Ghost of Political Armageddon Yet To Come. Stay too long making grandiose threats to go, express or tacit, and eventually you become an irrelevance. George Brown did just that in Harold Wilson's government in the late 1960s, while the more recent template is Clare Short, another popular maverick, who in the weeks leading to the invasion of Iraq threatened to quit almost on the hour, every hour. When the crunch came, she left the quitting to Robin Cook. She had quite an ego, too, and Tony Blair played on it with typical cunning to persuade her that no one else could mastermind the "rebuilding" of Iraq. Having sacrificed a sovereign point of principle on the altar of her own self-regard, when finally she did sling her hook no one took a blind bit of notice. Vince Cable is an incomparably superior politician, of course, but he is well along the same road.

With hindsight, he might have done better to resign with honour over the trebling of tuition fees than to remain in a government which everyone knew richly displeased him, long before he inadvertently spelt out how and why to The Daily Telegraph. He leans to the centre-left as Nick Clegg, with whom he is locked in an embrace of mutual resentment, bends to the centre-right, and his instinctive preference for a deal with Labour back in May has never been in doubt.

But the dice fell otherwise, and remaining in the tent pissing in, as someone observed recently of his fellow renegade Ken Clarke, isn't a viable long term option. There comes a time when a choice must be made. For now that choice has been postponed, but it is difficult to imagine this proud man sticking around for too long with the humiliation of a diminished role as Business Secretary. Much as with David Laws, and so nearly William Hague, albeit in a sharply different context, he has been undone by innocence. How naïve must you be to be ignorant of the one and only iron rule of British life, which states that in any war, nuclear or otherwise, Rupert Murdoch will always win?

Downing Street, where Andy Coulson clings to his post as media supremo, will be hugely relieved that Vince's ambition (and a nobler one there could not be) to go to war with the Murdoch Empire ended before it began, because while he would unquestionably have lost it, he would have inflicted some serious collateral damage on the way; and thrilled (no one perhaps more than Mr Clegg) that his wrecking power has been diminished.

It will also be aware that this isn't over yet. If Ed Miliband has an ounce of sense, he will be courting Vince Cable with flowers, chocolates and a sequinned blouse emblazoned with "This Coalition Sucks!" over Christmas. If yesterday clarified anything, apart from the fact that Vince Cable is a very clever twit, it was that absolutely nothing is clear in British politics.

Not only the Government but all three leaders and their parties are vulnerable to events to a degree unknown here in many decades. Seven months after that extraordinary election result, the contents of that kaleidoscope of Mr Blair's hideous cliché remain in flux, and still not a soul has the first clue how they will settle.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Plant Fitter - Construction Industry

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This well established construction equipment d...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

Recruitment Genius: Factory Operatives

£7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This high quality thread manufacturer ba...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
August 1923: Immigrants in a dining hall on Ellis Island, New York.  

When will the Church speak up for the dispossessed, and those that our political system leaves behind?

Stefano Hatfield
Mexico president Enrique Peña Nieto  

The UK is rolling out the red carpet for President Peña Nieto, but his security forces have blood on their hands

Kate Allen
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003