Steve Richards: Cable's rise was exaggerated. So too has been his demise

This affair changes little in practical terms. The Conservative wing of the Coalition would have made sure Murdoch got what he wanted one way or another
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The Independent Online

There is a comic dimension to Vince Cable's capacity for making waves. Before the election, Cable was worshipped as a prophet on the financial crisis, a parliamentary wizard, and the politician with the answers on the economy. His books became bestsellers and he could sell out theatres around the land. Nick Clegg could not compete with the adulatory attention and nor could anyone else. Occasionally, Alistair Darling or George Osborne politely and daringly pointed to inconsistencies in Cable's analysis. They might as well have been speaking Latin. No one wanted to hear.

Now Cable has metamorphosed into the great dissenter, the Tony Benn of the Cabinet, a senior minister who is publicly critical of the Government's direction. In the 1970s, Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan stripped Benn of some ministerial powers, but the more they did so the greater the aura around the charismatic dissenter. The latest chapter in his bizarrely epic career makes Cable a weaker minister, but one who could be the focus of growing discontent amongst Liberal Democrats.

This is the point where the strange frenzy around the Business Secretary reaches a stage of deranged zaniness that makes the previous deification seem normal. Cable was right in his assessment of the Coalition during his supposedly private conversation in his constituency. As I argued on Tuesday, it moves too fast in too many different directions. Cable described the scope of the radicalism as Maoist. His concern is justified. On several policy fronts there is trouble ahead for the Coalition, not least in the many areas where the Government has no mandate. But apart from looking miserable, Cable has done little to mobilise other internal opponents, unlike previous and genuinely titanic dissenters. This is partly because there are marked limits to Cable's dissent. He agrees with his party's U-turn on the deficit and is a supporter of the cuts that partly drive the Maoist pace of reform.

Cable is no insurrectionary. Only a short time ago he floated the idea of a graduate tax. At the time, I wrote that there was no way the Conservative wing would accept such a reform. What I did not realise was that very quickly Cable would find such a reform unacceptable, too. His vague concern for the pace of reform will be addressed but not by his own rebellious resolution. Events will slow the Coalition down rather than the threat of Cable's resignation. Unless he is traumatised by recent events, the threat was empty anyway. This is common with most internal critics. They enjoy being Cabinet ministers and tend to stay put.

Cable's early deification was absurdly at odds with his modest, not particularly original analysis of the economic crisis. He was not even that brilliant a parliamentary performer. Calling Gordon Brown Mr Bean was quite funny, but hardly made him a mesmerising orator. Now his role as a clumsy dissenter is treated with the same level of hyperbolic frenzy, and is equally misplaced. Cable did not make a speech opposing the Coalition, nor did he give an interview. He is publicly loyal. Some might say he is too loyal. He was caught out. He did not actively conspire to be caught out.

In being a victim of a newspaper operation, he has done David Cameron an enormous favour. As usual in this early phase of the Coalition, a storm erupts and Cameron emerges like a surfer who still looks cool even after a big wave submerges him. The Cable affair is a perfect storm for the Prime Minister. Cameron and George Osborne have boundaries as a far as policy-making goes. They are more rigid than they seem. I knew they would never allow Cable to introduce a graduate tax when he briefly wanted to do so. Ken Clarke's Green Paper on prisons will stay very Green for a long time.

Similarly, I have no doubt the duo would have wanted to deliver for Rupert Murdoch, but until this week I could not see how they got around the fact that Cable was ultimately responsible for decisions relating to media ownership. Somehow or other they would have prevailed, but the route would have been painfully tortuous. Now their path is cleared. In an unrecoverable act of humiliation for Cable, he loses responsibility and it lands in the lap of the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. The transfer is so neat it is almost a thing of beauty. Once more it is Nick Clegg being door-stepped to explain away the behaviour of figures within his party. Cameron has a problem solved and an obstacle removed.

He will not always be unfazed. The speed of activity in the midst of economic fragility would test a single-party government with a landslide majority. The dynamics of a Coalition add another layer of stress that will challenge someone even as at ease with himself and with power as Cameron.

Yesterday, some Tory MPs were calling for Cable to be sacked. The calls are preposterous. Cable did not break collective responsibility. A newspaper that takes pleasure in stitching up politicians played a trick on him. But the calls raise an interesting question about the management of the Coalition as the going gets much tougher. Ultimately, Cameron must decide which minister is sacked. But in the case of the Liberal Democrat wing, Clegg must have a say too. Reshuffles have the potential to be truly nightmarish and the source of enduring tension. While Cameron cannot afford to have senior Tory critics on the backbenches, Clegg will also not want to see possible troublemakers stirring outside of government.

That is for another day. The Cable affair changes nothing very much in practical terms. Cable is still in the Cabinet. The Conservative wing would have made sure Murdoch got what he wanted one way or another, even if the events of the past few days had not taken place. The weird sense of excitement around the unassuming personality of a not especially agile politician continues.

Cable's next appearance as Business Secretary will generate much breathless excitement in advance. And yet Cable is not as epic as he seems. Or rather we choose to see in him more than is really there. His next public appearance will be on Strictly Come Dancing on Christmas Day. That at least is not an illusion. He can dance.

s.richards@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/steverichards14

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