Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Loose Cable?

So the Sage of Twickenham is as mortal as other men - a couple of young ladies simpered their way into recording Vince talking up his latent power and his ability to bring down a government with a single stroke of his resignation.

We can argue about whether stalking LibDems to get their real opinions of the coalition is really worth such subterfuge - it hardly qualifies as serious crime, regrettable as their alliance with the Dark Side may be. I know that I have had private conversations with political opponents which would make uncomfortable reading for them and their parties, but I wouldn't dream of revealing them, still less of recording them, without their permission. It may inform my writing, but I prefer to work with public statements of policy - I do actually grasp the concept of collective responsibility. Vince should certainly have checked that these two were constituents of his - the electoral roll is available to confirm that fact - rather than just showing off his political virility. On the other hand, Labour can be grateful to Vince for letting slip Tory plots to cut back on the winter fuel allowance - any cut to that will cost lives amongst the fuel poor, a category that includes a lot of elderly people. But that is for another day...

I'd question whether Cable still has the capacity to bring the government down by resigning. Certainly, he provides a measure of gravitas and credibility to Clegg and Co - his performance during the banking crisis gained him widespread respect and his knowledge is certainly excellent, but that is a dwindling credit. As Clegg, Alexander and the rest of the Liberal Democrat ministerial team become more confident in their own abilities, the need for a credible elder statesman decreases. Indeed, one may question how much credibility actually remains, given that Cable has reversed course on the scale and timing of the cuts, has supported a VAT rise that he had previously campaigned against and has, most shamefully, led the imposition of higher tuition fees against a very specific pledge that he signed. Does he have any principles left that would justify resignation after that?

Surely, if he had refused to implement the increase and resigned, he would have emerged far more powerfully as a force on the backbenches, sitting beside Charlie Kennedy and Ming Campbell, glaring disapprovingly at the young whippersnappers playing at being in government. But he didn't and today's events have left him a dead man walking as well as raising serious questions about his judgement.

The Telegraph knew that the revelations about Murdoch and Sky were dynamite and that is almost certainly why that part of the story was spiked. In common with other elected offices, there are times when a secretary of state has to act in a quasi-judicial role, where a matter has to be decided on the facts as presented and not on the basis of prejudices and preconceptions. In
Local government, planning or licencing matters are typically regarded in this manner. Failure to adhere to those principles will lay any decision open to judicial review and this is precisely what has happened to Cable, who has been comprehensively outplayed by the journalists and whoever passed the full tape to Robert Peston - shrewdly giving it to the BBC and not to Sky News.

The clear winner, of course, is Rupert Murdoch, who can now rely on the suitably pliable (and anti-BBC) Jeremy Hunt to nod through the Newscorp takeover of Sky.

The losers are manifold. Clegg looks weaker for feeling that he has to hang onto a wounded beast like Cable. Cameron doesn't come out of it well - he hasn't shown the steel needed to demand Cable's head on a plate, prederig to vacillate and delay rather than take a firn decision - dithering being an accusation levelled against Brown by the Tories. Cameron will also have longer term problems ahead - his treatment of Cable has not gone unnoticed by his own party and the view there is clearly that if this had been a Tory minister, then the decision would have been different. That is the kind if discontent that builds and broods - insignificant now, but continued fuelling of that discontent will eventually cause serious party problems for the Tories. There have been rumours of further entrapments of other Lib Dems and certainly any more revelations from Cable would force his immediate resignation. The only bright side for Clegg and Cameron is that Cable has effectively neutralised himself as a future focus for opposition.

And what of Vince? I think that this reprieve is merely temporary and once David Laws completes his spell in exile - assuming the investigation into his expenses is squared away - he can expect a return to ministerial office, which will necessitate a reshuffling of the Lib Dem ministerial pack and I would expect Cable to be dumped before Spring as part of a general - although not seismic - reshuffle, thus ensuring that he is denied the opportunity to find a point of principle which is worth his symbolic martyrdom by resignation. He has served his purpose as a lightning rod and has exhausted his credibility with the nation over the tuition fees debacle. His egotistical dream of going down in a blaze of glory looks like vain posturing in the cold light of day and seems destined never to become reality.

Strange really - the only person who has gained anything today is someone who didn't even figure
In the original story - Rupert Murdoch. Even the Telegraph have lost out, because while the original story fed their anti-coalition agenda, the upshot has been to damage their commercial interests in taming Newscorp.

Funny old world, isn't it?

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