Overrated: Vince Cable

The Liberal Democrat Business Secretary is a gravy-train hopper who does not deserve his reputation as an economic guru

Overrated UK Politics
Vince Cable: Does he deserve his reputation? (credit: Michael Daley)

During the last days of Gordon Brown’s administration, as financial meltdown and eurozone crisis led up to the watershed election of 2010, “St Vince” was talked up as a prophet and saviour. Then, in the midst of the Liberal Democrat “bounce” campaign, Dr Cable — as he likes to be known — was said to be the popular favourite to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the event, he became business secretary; but at the nadir of recession in 2012, his outrider Lord Oakeshott renewed the call for a Cable chancellorship, deriding George Osborne as a “work experience Chancellor”. Now there is renewed gossip about “Cable” as a potential Chancellor — only this time under a putative Lib-Lab coalition.

What this steady stream of speculation proves is not that Vince Cable deserves to crown his career in 11 Downing Street, but that he still hankers after the job and is not above manipulating the media to get it. Nobody should be deceived by this Yorkshireman’s breezy, avuncular manner: his ambition is insatiable and his methods are ruthless. Having undermined two Liberal Democrat leaders, Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell, Cable briefly became acting leader. Though passed over in favour of Nick Clegg, he has never abandoned hope, especially now that Chris Huhne’s downfall leaves Cable unchallenged as his party’s voice on economic policy.

Nor has Cable disguised his view that the Lib Dems should be in coalition with Labour — the party to which he belonged for 17 years, from his period as president of the Cambridge Union in 1965 until his defection to the Social Democrats in 1982. Throughout his period as Business Secretary, Cable has promoted the interventionist politics he shares with his predecessors in the post, Michael Heseltine and Peter Mandelson. The traditional term for such policies is corporatism. Cable has had an undistinguished record at a “super-ministry” that was created for Gordon Brown’s “First Minister”, Lord Mandelson, and which should then have been broken up. Only Cable’s vanity has prevented the universities being returned where they belong, to the education department, though he has generally left them in the safe hands of David Willetts. He resisted what he called the Tories’ “Maoist revolution” in the early days of the coalition, and has continued throughout to press for big-government solutions.

The one exception was Post Office privatisation, a policy adopted by the Lib Dems during the heady days of their Orange Book phase, led by David Laws, Danny Alexander and Jeremy Browne. Such free-market ideas have been effectively scotched by Cable and his corporatist rhetoric — most recently on display in the debate over Pfizer’s proposed takeover of AstraZenica, in which his view of Britain as a “knowledge economy not a tax haven” came through strongly. Alas for Cable, this is a false dichotomy: the most successful knowledge economies tend also to be those with the lowest tax, lightest regulation and least state intervention.

So where does Cable’s reputation as the best Chancellor we never had come from? It is based on his background: the gritty northern grammar school lad who read economics at Cambridge, gained a doctorate and rose to be chief economist at Shell.

Yet this reputation for economic insight arising from business experience does not withstand scrutiny. The vast bulk of his career was spent, not in business, but in the bureaucratic playground of international development from the Sixties to the Nineties. Cable rose smoothly from the Foreign Office, via the World Commission on Environment and Development at the United Nations, to the Overseas Development Institute, the Commonwealth Secretariat and Chatham House — with a brief interlude at Shell. Only in 1995, by which time he was already in his fifties, did he move back to Shell. He stayed there only until 1997 before entering Parliament.

Thus Cable’s much-vaunted private-sector career actually lasted less than five years. Even his much younger colleague David Laws clocked up seven years at J.P. Morgan and Barclays de Zoete Wedd, while Sajid Javid (see opposite) managed nearly two decades. Cable never got his hands dirty in the cut-throat world inhabited by the mainly small businesses over which he presides, but enjoyed a couple of brief sojourns at one of the largest of multinational corporations, where his political contacts were doubtless useful. Leaping from one gravy train to the next, he alighted safely at what was always his intended destination: Westminster.

What would Cable do, if next year he were to achieve his ambition as Chancellor alongside Ed Miliband in a Labour-Liberal coalition? The likelihood is that he would relax the strict spending and borrowing limits established by George Osborne, scrap the long-term aim of reducing the size of the state, while extending his policy at “Biz” of backing winners and meddling across the board. At 72 Vince Cable would be the oldest Chancellor in modern times. He   would almost certainly also prove to be the worst.