Vince Cable: hoist by his own hype

Cable’s threat to topple the coalition government is in keeping with his cut-off, petit-bourgeois outlook.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics UK

After the student protest-inspired criticism of their leader, Nick ‘promise breaker’ Clegg, the Liberal Democrats needed the pre-Christmas humiliation of Vince Cable like the UK needs more snow.

And what a humiliation it was. Seated in his MP’s office in Richmond, holding surgeries with his constituents, Cable must have felt on safe ground. Perhaps that’s why his guard was down when talking to two twentysomething women called Holly and Heidi. Or perhaps, as many have suggested, Cable was simply showing off, something that seems likely given his eagerness to prance about on the BBC’s Celebrity Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special. Unfortunately for Cable, Holly and Heidi weren’t Richmond constituents at all; they were journalists.

So it was, with no little relish, that the Daily Telegraph was able to reveal Cable’s views on relations between him and his Conservative coalition colleagues. ‘Can I be very frank with you’, Cable said, ‘and I am not expecting you to quote this outside, I have a nuclear option. It’s like fighting a war. They know I have nuclear weapons, but I don’t have any conventional weapons. If they push me too far then I can walk out of the government and bring the government down and they know that.’

If Cable’s self-regard was embarrassing for both him and his party, the affair quickly became more serious when parts of the transcript initially excised by the Telegraph were subsequently revealed by the BBC’s Robert Peston. It turned out that not only did Cable have an inflated sense of his own power, but where he did have actual ministerial powers he was willing to pursue his own agenda: in this case, by refusing to sanction Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of broadcaster BSkyB, a company of which Murdoch already owns 29 per cent.

‘I am picking my fights, some of which you may have seen, some of which you may [not have] seen’, Cable bragged. ‘And I don’t know if you have been following what has been happening with the Murdoch press, where I have declared war on Mr Murdoch and I think we are going to win. I have blocked [the takeover] using the powers that I have got and they are legal powers… I can’t politicise it but from the people that know what is happening this is a big, big thing. His whole empire is now under attack.’ Unsurprisingly, while Cable has retained his position as the coalition government’s business secretary, he is no longer responsible for ruling on Murdoch’s takeover of BSkyB.

There has been no shortage of people willing to criticise The Vanity of Vince. The Guardian reported that a senior Tory had called Cable ‘a self-indulgent twerp’. One columnist wrote about the affair under the headline ‘Vince Cable – trapped by his own hubris’. And elsewhere, Janet Street Porter wrote in the Independent that ‘the more we know about his over-inflated sense of self-worth, the less we find him impressive’.

All this may be true to some extent. Cable seems so full of himself it’s a wonder he hasn’t burst. ‘I am Vince, destroyer of the evil Murdoch empire’, he might as well have proclaimed. Yet, to criticise him for his vanity, his preening sense of self-worth, neglects the role played by his one-time supporters in the media in creating this ‘self-indulgent twerp’ in the first place.

After all, Cable’s arrogant pride in speaking his mind, of not toeing any party line, was something that once seduced commentators. He was seen as an antidote to the prevalence of spin and presentation. Where his colleagues in the political class appeared wilfully superficial he seemed possessed of depth. Gifted with a voice which begins somewhere high in his nasal passage, and one of those minds capable of storing an unfeasible amount of facts and figures, he stood out amid the fluting, sound-bitten voices and over-polished sheen of his peers. His apparent lack of spin set him apart from those all too oiled in it. Such was Cable’s appeal that the New Statesman once lauded him as a British Obama. Given the media fawning that has accompanied Cable’s political rise, it’s probably fair to say that he has been hoist by his own hype.

As for what Cable actually said, none of it should be a surprise. What it reveals is something that spiked editor Brendan O’Neill pointed out after the televised chancellors’ debate last year. That is, Cable’s uncanny ability to articulate ‘the whiny, self-pitying outlook of the middle-class taxpayer’. This time, however, rather than attack the ‘pin-striped Scargills’ of the banking world, he attacked that other embodiment of the greedy grasping excess, Rupert Murdoch. Cable’s mean-spirited, resentment-laden politics is not limited to attacking those with too much, however. It’s also directed at those with little who aspire to have more. Hence his pejorative phrase for bankers, ‘pin-striped Scargills’, a reference to Arthur Scargill, the leader of an organisation, the National Union of Mineworkers, which struggled to improve the lives of its working-class members.

Petit-bourgeois to his gnarled, embittered core, Cable stands apart from traditional party-political constituencies. Or as he himself put it in March last year, he is neither beholden to ‘the super-rich or the militant unions’. Little wonder that Cable, expressing what O’Neill called ‘a cut-off, elitist outlook’, feels so little accountability to anyone in particular that he was willing to fantasise about single-handedly destroying the coalition government.

Undemocratic and pettily authoritarian, Cable’s shameless pre-Christmas boasting simply reveals what his public pronouncements have been saying all along.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics UK


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