Isabel Hardman

Lib Dem conference: Vince Cable undermines Clegg’s ‘reasonable party’ strategy

Lib Dem conference: Vince Cable undermines Clegg's 'reasonable party' strategy
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Another year, another speech by Vince Cable attacking those nasty Tories. After his rather undignified to-ing and fro-ing over the economy vote that left him looking confused and selfish while Clegg emerged looking rather bold and statesmanlike, the Business Secretary had just half an hour before he returned to the conference hall to speak again. The consensus seems to be that he made a fool of himself by not deciding what it was he should do. And given that even Tim Farron rallied behind the leadership, delivering an impressive speech in favour of Clegg's position when he's often more than happy to brief against his colleague, Cable hardly looked collegiate.

Perhaps he was feeling a little flat after causing a row, but the Business Secretary was hardly in a buoyant mood as he delivered his speech. He cracked some good, dry jokes about 'my own Book of Lamentations' and how 'you will recall from your reading of the Old Testament that Jeremiah was right'. But he delivered a flat speech to a flat conference hall. It contained plenty of strong language: 'the Tea Party Tories', 'blinkered small state ideology' and the suggestion that the Conservatives are pandering too much to Nigel Farage - 'We did not vote to join a coalition with Ukip'. And in some ways it was rather similar to last year's speech in that Cable yet again declared victory over the Tories on supply-side reform, saying 'we have seen off demands from a Tory donor to make it possible to fire people for no reason whatsoever'. Last year he said that 'we have seen off the "head bangers" who want a hire and fire culture and seem to find sacking people an aphrodisiac'. Clearly Beecroft looms large in the consciousness of the Lib Dems, even though Nick Clegg rejected the fire-at-will proposal in May 2012.

listen to ‘Vince Cable's speech to the Lib Dem conference 2013’ on Audioboo

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Where Cable remained spiky, though, was on the Lib Dem message. He walked along the line that Nick Clegg has drawn, positioning the Lib Dems as the only centrist reasonable party that's equidistant between profligate Labour and thoughtless Tories. But then he kept walking, and made some implicit criticisms of that 'fairness' strategy.

'Fairness take us so far - but in my view not far enough. We are not just a nicer version of the Tories. There are fundamental differences about how to create a stronger economy and more jobs.

'We are five years on from the biggest market failure of our lifetime. Financial capitalism collapsed and was rescued by the state. Labour was in charge and had fallen asleep at the wheel. They were negligent. The Tories' friends and donors were at the heart of the greed and recklessness which lay behind that disaster. Today they yearn to return to 'business as usual'. Whilst we work with them, pragmatically and constructively, to clean up the mess, we must not allow them to turn the clock back.

'In essence, the Tories have a simple world view; private good, public bad. Labour offers the polar opposite. As Liberal Democrats we value both public and private sectors.'

Now, that last line sounds a bit Cleggish to me: Cable is basically saying 'we're in the middle, loving both the sectors that the other parties view as mutually exclusive'. But what he was suggesting was not dissimilar to the argument that Tim Farron has made to me before about Lib Dem policy-making: the party can't just think about hanging between the others, but should instead focus on its own distinct vision.

The problem is, though, that Cable has lost some currency after today's debacle. Perhaps he thought that the economy vote would be closer than it was: in the end Clegg won overwhelming support for his motion. After the three votes that have gone the leadership's way in the past two days, it's quite easy for Clegg and co to dismiss mutterings about strategy from someone whose own strategy has, in the past 24 hours, gone rather awry.