Political Promise

Forget Vince Cable: the Cameron government is under attack

In Alex Gabriel on December 25, 2010 at 11:10 am

It’s not just the Business Secretary The Daily Telegraph wants to undermine writes Alex Gabriel.

Merry Christmas – that’s where I’m going to start. This isn’t a Christmassy post, so let’s get it out of the way. Admittedly I’ve never been the festive season’s greatest fan, but if it’s Scrooge-like to be writing about politics today, then perhaps we should think of the world’s Bob Cratchets, sorry for themselves and miserable at Christmas. Except the gloomy clerk I’m thinking of is in Twickenham and not London, and his name isn’t Bob either. It’s Vince Cable.

All of us have heard about it by now: how The Daily Telegraph sent journalists to pose as constituents, and recorded him and fellow Liberal Democrats bad-mouthing Tory colleagues. Cable’s claim he could ‘bring down the government by resigning’ trod a particularly fine line between frankness and arrogance, and Ed Miliband said he ought to be sacked. Initially it seemed surprising David Cameron didn’t sack him, downsizing his portfolio instead and giving a good talking to.

Cameron’s own backbenchers said he wouldn’t have treated a Conservative so mercifully, which illustrates the dilemma he faces. Spare Cable the rod and he faces their criticism; sack him and he weakens his coalition. Whatever ‘difficult choices’ he might face, Cable still represents leftier Lib Dems under a right-wing government; he would take their votes with him if he left, which was his original point. Cameron’s lax response is understandable in the end – it’s the Telegraph’s role in all this that puzzled me.

It is, after all, a Conservative newspaper. We refer to people as Telegraph-readers just as we refer to others as Guardian-readers. Not every journalist, of course, shares their editor’s political stance, but nothing this high-profile is printed without top-level approval. David Cameron and his Tory-led government have lost face because of Cablegate, and he himself has been put in a hard position. Why, of all newspapers, would the Torygraph threaten this coalition?

It can’t be for nothing that it chose to target Lib Dems, and my feeling is that Cameron is being punished for aligning with them. Nick Clegg has faced accusations of turning blue, in the first days of the coalition and since – the blues themselves are still blue of course, but perhaps the yellow streak in this government bothers their traditional supporters.  The Conservative right got disciplined in opposition, witholding any complaints about David Cameron, but by now traditional Telegraph-readers are beginning to act up.

Look at the Conservative Party’s back benches. Look, specifically, at Nadine Dorries. This month she accused Cameron of giving too much away to the Lib Dems, subsuming their party’s values for the coalition’s sake. Dorries, as Alan Duncan put it, belongs to ‘the Tory Taliban’ – she isn’t alone, though. Norman Tebbit was threatened for suggesting Cameron was too soft on Europe, and Peter Bone thinks the Lib Dems should be offloaded pre-2015. Perhaps the Telegraph feels similarly.

Don’t let’s mince words: I think that like the MPs in question, it feels the current government is insufficiently right-wing. The current government – David Cameron’s – which aims to cut spending by 0.7 percent a year where Margaret Thatcher increased it by 1.2 percent. On Question Time Nadine Dorries called herself a daughter of Thatcher, but David Cameron makes the iron lady look like Karl Marx. Pause for a moment, and imagine the kind of majority government he’d lead – that’s the kind his right-wing critics want.

Presumably, their plan is that by exposing as many discontented Lib Dems as possible and piling discomfort onto Nick Clegg, they can split the coalition up and have Cameron win a majority in a general election. He wouldn’t need to allow any chance for vote reform or restore any civil liberties that New Labour destroyed. He could sack anyone he wanted. I believe The Daily Telegraph views undermining this government as a long-term service to Cameron and the traditional right.

Otherwise, why release the secret recordings? We might read this as an individual attempt on Vince Cable’s career, perhaps to replace him with someone more agreeable like David Laws. In that case though, why not stop with him? The newspaper has done the same to Norman Baker, David Heath, Andrew Stunell and Paul Burstow. This sting can only be wholly understood as a concerted effort to help undo the coalition, and the only obvious aim of that would be a Conservative election victory.

Fortunately for those of us on the left, it’s not a plan I can see working. Recent polling averages indicate a small but stable Labour lead that would give Ed Miliband a majority if repeated; we can only expect that to remain the case as cuts in public services take effect, and it seems unlikely the Conservatives could retake the lead by splitting up with the Lib Dems. Cameron would risk appearing weak by doing so, and it would be a U-turn on the major political development of 2010.

The alternative would be a minority government, aided at times by the Liberal Democrats and impotent otherwise. That would be much more comfortable for the Lib Dems, but would never be an option for David Cameron – for the last three years he called persistently for an immediate election, and it would be out of character for him to lead a weak government and wait for an election he was bound to lose. For him to survive politically, the current coalition must be preserved.

This is why Vince Cable has to stay in the cabinet: dismissing him would endanger the coalition far too much. I suspect Ed Miliband realises all this, because by calling for Cameron to sack him he placed more pressure on the Prime Minister to do something unfeasible. The more hesistant Cameron appears to dispense discipline, the more his reputation is damaged. Parliament in general knows Cable has to stay, but Cameron’s opponents are using this against him.

How will the government react to this situation? Perhaps with a renewed narrative of solidarity. Unite-to-survive is the standard response to divide-and-conquer, and we can expect Clegg and Cameron to use all their PR muscles to that end. More ‘difficult choices’ and ‘tough decisions’ will appear in the speeches of Lib Dem leaders; a few more one-liners from the Prime Minister, perhaps, stressing camaraderie with Clegg to keep Vince Cable out of the way.

Cable himself is a policy-head. The best way to heal his political standing might be more policymaking. Before this newspaper sting, he was associated him with tuition fees; before that, with graduate tax; before that, with income tax thresholds. He was, after all, the Lib Dems’ economic spokesperson and his private comments demonstrate real engagement with policy battles – perhaps he’ll be reestablished as as a Stafford Cripps-style ideas man, competent at doing the math if not loveable.

This scandal has clearly been a labour of love, whatever happens. To produce such a variety of controversial private comments is impressive journalism, but to do so in the space of a week takes preparation. (No doubt their publication at Christmas was meant as an ironic gift as well as a sales-booster.) It takes more than a telling off and a changed portfolio to rectify this, and you have my predictions about the government’s actions, but watching the aftermath unfold will be interesting whether or not I’m right.

This much bears repeating, too: this story is fascinating not just because of what we’ve heard, but the fact we’ve heard it from The Daily Telegraph. In some ways it’s a milestone in the renewal of coalition politics that the right-wing press behaves like this toward its chosen statesmen – David Cameron’s now-unenviable position could only be occupied by the head of a bipartisan government. If I didn’t oppose him as much as I do, I might sympathise.

As a left-wingerthough, I have to feel somewhat smug. Whether it’s the Milibands or Blair and Brown, Kinnock versus Militant or Gaitskell versus Bevan, the left in Britain (and the Labour Party in particular) has a reputation for factional infighting. It’s not by any means unprecdented, especially after the demise of Margaret Thatcher or Iain Duncan Smith, but the Telegraph’s current treatment of this government shows that the right can join in, too.

The centre-left’s tricky divorce of Nick Clegg has been established. Whoever voted Lib Dem back in May and will again next time, they won’t by at this stage be convinced otherwise. Now we see the right of Cameron’s party turn, wolverine-like on him. Decrying the loss of law and order, the PC brigade or the EU, they appear in Telegraph form or in the guise of Nadine Dorries or Peter Bone. This is the reality of the new politics: nobody, now, is safe from recrimination.

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