Vince Cable: You Ask The Questions

The Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats answers your questions, such as 'Do you regret not standing for leader?' and 'Are you a Stalinist or Mr Bean?'

Monday 17 March 2008 01:00
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You recommended the nationalisation of Northern Rock. Should nationalisation be extended to other industries showing signs of distress under private ownership, eg energy, railways, airports?

Peter Lyth, Southwell

Nationalisation was the right solution for Northern Rock once large amounts of public money had been committed to it. The rail infrastructure is already nationalised, in effect. The others are better dealt with through tough competition policy and regulation. But there is no sense in dogma either way.

How do you reconcile a commitment to continued economic growth with claims to want to tackle climate change?

Adrian Cruden, by email

I helped, 20 years ago, to produce the Brundtland report, Our Common Future, which launched the concept of "sustainable development". The concept was one of development not stagnation – with growth needed to overcome poverty – but in an environmentally responsible form.

Admit it – the fiasco over the EU vote was an embarrassing mistake by Clegg, wasn't it?

Jane Hill, by email

We believe the British people should have a new referendum on the wider question of membership. The vote was on the much narrower issue of the Treaty. Interestingly, on the same day, the Tories organised a whipped abstention on Europe when their Europhobes rebelled. It went unreported.

In the era of global entities, is there an alternative to Britain's wholehearted commitment to the EU?

John Romer, Ealing

The purpose of our seeking a fresh referendum on EU membership is, precisely, to seek a popular mandate for a national commitment to the EU. This cannot be achieved by stealth. A strong commitment also makes it easier to oppose the bad aspects of the EU – agricultural protectionism in the CAP; intrusive regulation in matters better left to national governments – without the suspicion that Britain is seeking a semi-detached status.

The Liberal Democrats have had so many changes of leadership that I have no idea who is in charge or what they stand for. Does everybody get to be leader for two weeks?

Mark Downing, Cornwall

You can't count. We have had four elected leaders in two decades. The Tories have had six.

If you were more physically attractive, would you be leader of the Liberal Democrats now?

Robert Miles, Truro

I am not vain enough to worry about such things. I would be worried only if my wife, Rachel, shared your assessment. I don't think there is any evidence that British voters are swayed by aspiring politicians who look like film stars or models.

Are you surprised by your sudden popularity, given that you are not over-burdened with charisma?

Melanie Golding, Kentish Town

Charisma is a much overrated quality (and I am not entirely sure what it means). I try to be clear in argument, fair to opponents and good humoured. I am pleasantly surprised if that has proved to be a winning formula.

You are the most impressive politician out there. However, as a Liberal Democrat, you are unlikely to be in power. How will you address this?

Mark Harris, by email

Thank you for your kind words. I like to think I and my colleagues have some influence even if not in power. Recent offensives on green taxes, capital gains tax, non-doms and Northern Rock contributed to government action, even if flawed. Lib Dems do see themselves as a party of power and already exercise it in local government in areas which until recently were seen as Labour or Tory one-party states.

Do you have any regrets about not standing for Liberal Democrat leader?

James Prentice, Waverton

No regrets. I am content as Deputy Leader and my party's shadow Chancellor – a big workload. I also enjoy having more time for my family; to be a conscientious local MP; and to write.

Your party seems to have ended up with a Cameron-lite leader. Any hope of another coup and you taking over?

Steve Ball, Ashford

Not at all. Nick is emerging as an effective leader and our poll ratings are improving.

So who would you form a government with – the Conservatives or Labour? We have a right to know.

Francis Richardson, by email

We are not leaning to the Conservatives or Labour or looking to be partners in a coalition. We are an independent party and will aim to maximise seats and votes at the expense of both our competitors.

Which government minister would you most like in the Liberal Democrat ranks?

Lea Cragg, Brighton

The Labour government had some genuinely impressive ministers – Robin Cook, Clare Short, Frank Field, Kate Hoey, Charles Clarke among others – but they have all been fired, died, retired or jumped ship. We would welcome genuine, liberal-minded, converts.

There is serious disconnection between the people and the House of Commons. What changes could be made to remedy this?

Tony Taylor, Manchester

Political engagement has weakened at all levels – national, regional, local and European. Many people find single issue or localised campaigning more effective or satisfying. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, for elections to the House of Commons, a more sceptical electorate needs to feel that every vote counts, which is the main case for electoral reform. I also think that the stylised and artificially polarised method of debate at Westminster antagonises many voters who are becoming more detribalised.

Surely Liberal MPs should vote according to their consciences. Why do the Liberal Democrats follow the whipping practices of the other two parties?

David Lewis, by email

MPs should vote according to their consciences on conscience issues – as will arise with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. On most issues, we should agree a common line. How otherwise would people know how to differentiate the parties?

How severe are the threats to the UK's economy in the coming year?

Dylan Ross, New Cross, London

There are severe threats to the UK economy, about which the Government has been complacent. The "credit crunch" hasn't worked its way through. We have a home-grown problem of excessive household debt linked to an inflated bubble in the housing market, now bursting. The Bank of England is unable to cut interest rates aggressively because of inflation. The Government's budget weakness does not allow a fiscal stimulus. Potentially a "perfect economic storm".

Do you think the Government is being honest about the level of inflation? My outgoings have doubled in the last year.

Matt Drury, Edinburgh

The inflation measure used for setting interest rates – the CPI – is honest but a poor measure of household inflation. It doesn't include housing costs. The inflation target measure should be revised for this reason.

How can binge drinking be tackled without punishing responsible drinkers too?

Gillian Whitcroft, Barnsley

The main mechanisms for dealing with antisocial binge drinking do not relate to levels of alcohol tax: a strong late-night police presence, more disqualifications for licensees who abuse their licenses and tighter controls over off-licences. But tax on high-alcohol drink should help deter consumption (why otherwise are there cut-price offers?) offset by cuts in the high VAT on healthy drinks like fruit juice.

Five years on from the Iraq invasion, aren't things now looking much better?

Raymond Wilson, London

British troops are no longer in the front line in Basra so things appear better. There are reports, however, that life under the militias and religious fanatics is grim, especially for women. There appears to be less violence in the north, but we don't know what will happen when the American "surge" is over.

Which book you've read had the most influence on you?

Ian Young, Suffolk

I love the whole genre of Indian English literature which also connects me to my Indian extended family and friends through my late wife, Olympia. Torn between R K Narayan's wonderfully economical portraits and A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth's account of family life.

Would you rather be a Stalinist or Mr Bean? And which best describes you?

Susie Marshall, Halifax

I was describing Gordon Brown rather than myself. I suspect that people respect tough, if ruthless, leaders rather than bumbling incompetents if that is the choice.

Your comparison of Gordon Brown with Mr Bean was a great line. What's the best line you've heard in the Commons?

Neil French, Swindon

Before my time, but the line variously attributed to Nigel Birch and Jeremy Thorpe that "the Prime Minister has laid down his friends for his life" applied not just to Macmillan but to many others in politics.

With your witty comments that you have made in House of Commons debates, did you ever fancy yourself as a stand-up comedian?

Ivor Yelloff, Norwich

I have no hidden talent as a stand-up comedian. I am a competent writer – and write and deliver my own scripts.

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