Vince: Cameron is “100% behind” my graduate tax proposals

by Stephen Tall on August 8, 2010

Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable is interviewed in the Sunday Telegraph (“in open-neck pink shirt and slippers”, intriguingly).

The paper chooses to headline it, Vince Cable: ‘I’m not having fun in government’, trying to feed into the narrative that Vince is a semi-detached member of the coalition government, though he’s certainly loyal in all his utterances. Incidentally, the headline quote set in context reads rather more uncontroversially: “People sometimes ask me ‘are you having fun?’ ” he says. ” No! It’s hard work and it’s tough, but it’s important.”

The paper largely ignores what seems to me a far more interesting part of the interview – when Vince asserts again his belief in replacing university tuition fees with a form of ‘graduate contribution’ (to be honest, though, Vince – I think the term graduate tax will stick):

… his view [is] that university funding must be paid for by a form of graduate tax (he prefers the phrase “graduate contribution”) despite this idea having come under serious fire from Conservative cabinet colleagues in anonymous briefings. He denies that “Number 10 sources” were behind the briefings and insists that the Prime Minister is “100 per cent behind” his plans, which he intends to flesh out in more detail once Lord Browne, the former BP chief executive, publishes his report on higher education funding in the autumn.

And Vince defends the principle behind it in these words:

What we are trying to inject into the argument is that if you become a very highly paid investment banker you finish up paying more than if you’ve gone off and become a voluntary worker or become a physicist in the National Physical Laboratory, or whatever. I want to make it progressive in that sense.”

He also asserts his progressive belief in redistribution, which he defines precisely as “a tax system that means people at the bottom end of the scale pay less and at the top end of the scale pay more.” And he points out that that is what the government is delivering:

I worked for some years to get us committed in our party to what we call fair taxes, lifting low-paid people out of tax, we got that in the coalition agreement and it was in the first budget. So I’m content that that’s being carried forward.”

Those looking to Vince as a malcontent, the person most likely to be the first to walk away from the coalition, will look in vain for off-message sniping. Would, for example, a defeat of the alternative vote in next year’s electoral reform referendum signal the coalition’s demise?

Nobody’s ever suggested that that’s an issue which will see us [the Lib Dems] collectively walk out if we don’t get what we want. As I see it, it’s a five year partnership, this is quite an important part of it but there are an awful lot of other things going on as well.”

However, in a far more coded way than Simon Hughes, he signals his disagreement with David Cameron’s suggestion that there might be an end to permanent council house tenancies:

I would say let’s have a debate about social housing, no just the point the PM raised – there’s obviously no harm in discussing those ideas – but let’s look at supply.”

Hmmm, supply: in other words, building more council houses. Well, David Cameron is said to admire his predecessor-but-seven Harold Macmillan, so perhaps a repeat of his 1951 ‘Great Housing Crusade’ is close at hand.