Philip Dunne is MP for Ludlow, winning the seat from the Liberal Democrats in May 2005. In this Platform article he examines the reputation of Vince Cable MP, the Liberal Democrats' Treasury spokesman.
For a politician to become a national treasure can be a mixed blessing. It must be nice to think you are held in higher esteem than the average politician. But – as President Obama is discovering – it is impossible to maintain universal popularity once you have real responsibility. So affording national treasure status may turn out to be an act of passive aggression: the public like you on a personal level, but have decided it is time for you to shuffle off the main stage. This is a comparatively civilised form of enforced retirement.
Just occasionally, though, a figure in public life can touch a nerve. They can become a national treasure yet still be considered a player. This allows them to enjoy that most precious of positions: being taken seriously and given lots of media attention without being troubled by inelegant probing questions or normal scrutiny. The Liberal Democrats’ Treasury spokesman Vince Cable finds himself in this enviable situation.
Indeed Dr Cable – who has recently published a book entitled The Storm: The World Economic Crisis & What it Means – is now treated by much of the media as an impartial commentator and sage, rather than as a fallible and partisan politician. Good for him; not so good for democracy.
It is not hard to see how this has happened. Dr Cable has an avuncular and plausible manner and has shown a deft touch in the House of Commons, famously saying Gordon Brown had morphed from Stalin into Mr Bean. He was a professional economist, which doubtless boosts his credibility as the economy takes centre stage – even though our experience of Cabinet ministers with economics degrees has not been an invariably happy one.
As a Liberal Democrat MP, Dr Cable is most unlikely to take charge of a Government department. So journalists are perhaps tempted to think there is no point questioning him too closely. But that is surely disrespectful. Vince Cable deserves the same rigorous examination as a Conservative or Labour spokesman in Parliament.
VINCE CABLE SAYS ONE THING, HIS PARTY SAYS ANOTHER
Alas, a search of his speeches leaves one rather less convinced of his infinite wisdom. His lack of consistency makes him look all too distressingly like the arch-stereotype of a Liberal Democrat – someone who will say whatever appears to be popular at the time.
When the new banking regulatory regime was established by Chancellor Brown, the Member for Twickenham assured the House of Commons in June 1999 that “No one is arguing for an increasingly severe, more onerous and dirigiste system of regulation”. Last year he recognised that the “investment banking model needs to overhauled”. This has been quite a journey, one that others have travelled, but hardly smacks of the consistency or good judgement being demonstrated by Conservative spokesmen at the time.
One of the few areas in which the Liberal Democrats have been consistent (albeit wrong) is the euro. But even this policy has come unstuck. In January LibDem leader Nick Clegg advocated British entry into the single currency to increase financial stability. A week later Dr Cable (perhaps emboldened by his higher poll ratings) slapped his Leader down, suggesting that the euro might actually collapse:
It seems only a Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman could flatly contradict his Leader on a matter of such central importance and continue to act as one of his principal spokesmen.
Public expenditure is another fraught topic. In September Dr Cable told his party conference that there was “a mood of austerity” and “an intolerance of binge lending by banks and binge spending by government”. The following month he told the BBC “It is entirely wrong for the Government to assume that the economy should be stimulated by yet more public spending rather than tax cuts.” Yet in December his party called for a £12.5 billion spending spree on social housing and railway lines and energy efficiency for homes, schools and hospitals.
This would supposedly be financed by scrapping the VAT cut. But as some of the measures would take five years to implement and VAT has already been cut, the LibDems’ sums simply don’t add up. So much for the good doctor’s assertion in November that: “We need a stimulus that will be funded”.
WRONG ON NATIONALISATION
In February 2008 he called for “temporary public ownership” of Northern Rock to “safeguard taxpayers’ interests”. The following August, by which time it had become clear that nationalisation had gone horribly wrong, he rather lamely said: “the Government and the regulators were badly deceived by Northern Rock’s former managers when they agreed to bail it out on the basis that it was a good bank with a good loan portfolio.”
Only last week during a debate on the economy, he repeated his call for full nationalisation of the banks in which the taxpayer already has a controlling stake. In the same speech he argued that the “asset protection scheme…which I argued at the outset…is a fraud against the British taxpayer”. Commentators seem reluctant to point out that if the banks are wholly nationalised the British taxpayer will become liable for all the toxic assets held by these banks, not just those submitted to the scheme he distrusts so much.
WRONG ON PENSIONS
In 2006 the Liberal Democrats proposed abolition of tax relief on pension contributions for higher earners. This policy was variously described by pensions experts as “extremely flawed”, “pointless”, “catastrophic” and “simply not practical”. It is also at odds with Dr Cable waxing lyrical in January this year on “the need to maintain (and strengthen) a long-term savings culture for retirement”.
He is not alone in identifying the US mortgage market as the trigger for the global economic crisis. Asked if he issued any warnings, he admitted “No, I didn’t” before launching into an extraordinary mea culpa: “one of the problems of being a British MP is that you do tend to get rather parochial, so I wouldn't claim to have any feel for what's been going on in the States”.
It is admirable of Vince Cable, who is a nice man, to admit that he isn’t omniscient after all. The time has come for the rest of us to take him at his word, and extend him the courtesy of being treated like a normal politician.