Vince Cable: first thoughts on his leadership (and his biggest challenge)

by Stephen Tall on July 20, 2017

Finally — after a slightly absurd delay even when it became obvious there would be no other candidates, and a decade after he first ruled himself out of the running for the job on the grounds of his age — Vince Cable has been ‘elected’ Lib Dem leader.

I’d probably have voted for him if the position had been contested, but I wouldn’t take my endorsement as a golden pat on the shoulder. Since I left Labour and joined the Lib Dems in 1999, I’ve given David Rendel, Ming Campbell, Chris Huhne and Tim Farron my first preferences as leader. The only two I backed successfully (Ming and Tim) had the shortest tenures. Correlation isn’t causation, but, still, I wouldn’t blame you for doubting my sagacity.

But sagacity is, of course, Vince’s forte. He was among the few to foresee the dangers lurking beneath the surface of the seemingly unsinkable British economy in 2007. His lowest professional moment — being stripped of his cabinet responsibility for assessing Rupert Murdoch’s bid for outright control of Sky after unwisely letting slip to an undercover journalist that he had ‘declared war’ on the media mogul — was later transformed into triumph after the phone hacking scandal forced all politicians to declare war on Murdoch (very temporarily in the Tories’ case).

I declared him my un-hero back in the days when blogging was cutting-edge social media. For all his brilliance, though, he has his flaws — most notably, for not being collegiate. He launched his ill-fated ‘mansion tax’ on to an unsuspecting Lib Dem conference in 2009, much to the chagrin of his colleagues in neighbouring seats whose constituencies would be most affected. Still, collegiality is less of an essential requirement for the leader’s job now they have fewer colleagues.

The main criticism levelled against him in this non-campaign (other than being too old, which is beyond is control) has centred on an interview with the New Statesman, which led to accusations — obviously, though not only, on the Guido Fawkes website — that he had hand-waved away the idea sexism or racism are issues any more. Here’s the full passage:

… Cable is 74 years old. Is he the right leader to attract youth support? “There was a phase – was it 20, 30 years ago? – when there was a faith in youth,” he says. “You know, Tony Blair, Nick [Clegg] and others. And the mood has changed. It’s more sober. People are puzzled and angry . . . and I think they’re willing to listen to people who’ve got some experience, some historical memory, of the way things are.” …

Yet many Lib Dems say that it’s time for a younger, fresher face. There was widespread disappointment that Jo Swinson, who could have been their first female leader, didn’t stand. Cable praises Swinson, who will be his deputy, but he insists that he is “not standing as a caretaker”.

“Gender isn’t an issue any more, rightly so,” he adds. “Thanks to Obama, race isn’t really an issue any more – at least, we hope not. And age shouldn’t be, either. It should be who you are and what you have to say.”

Now, the quote which got snipped and landed Vince in trouble in some quarters is “Gender isn’t an issue any more”. But, in context, it’s clear he’s talking about whether gender (or race) is any more an automatic bar to being a political leader — which is very different to the accusation levelled against him that he was denying the existence of sexism and racism. An accusation which must be pretty hurtful to someone who started an inter-racial family and whose father didn’t speak to him for four years as a result.

Here are some things I think Vince has going for him (other than being pretty darn clever):

He gives good talking head: the media will actually want to interview him. For a party with 12 MPs, that’s a pretty good qualification in itself. Of course, that does carry with it the risks of occasional loose lips (see above) — but if there’s one thing worse than being talked about…

He will appeal to moderates: as I’ve asked before, who should the Conservative who liked John Major, or the Labour supporter who wanted Yvette Cooper to be leader, vote for? Certainly not the current incarnations of their party. Vince might well be taken seriously by voters who didn’t warm to Tim Farron’s cheeky chappiness.

He’s a grown-up: true, Vince hasn’t been tested by a leadership campaign. As Gordon Brown and Theresa May both proved, that’s a short-term convenience and a medium-term problem. But Vince is a known quantity, for better or worse, and intellectually secure (sometimes, perhaps, to excess). He’s not going to be worried going up against Andrew Neil.

Vince’s biggest challenge is the one regularly posed by Mark Pack and David Howarth: from the doldrums of 8% at the last election, can he help foster a Lib Dem core vote, one that isn’t reliant on the Stakhanovite efforts of (sometimes eccentric) individuals dotted around the country, but which has genuine appeal to enough liberal-minded voters to form a cohesive voting bloc?

It’s no easy task, especially as Jeremy Corbyn has proven himself to be much more adept at appealing to educated, middle-class professionals, the group most likely to label themselves progressive small-l liberals — as evidenced by Labour’s stunning performance on 8th June in places like Bristol, Cambridge and Canterbury, as well as London — than he has Labour’s working-class base, whose support for Labour has declined.

But if the Lib Dems are to have a viable and sustainable future, it’s the only choice. Brexit, of course, gives him a platform, with the anti-EU Corbyn himself at least as committed to a Hard Brexit as Theresa May (probably: no-one really knows), and Labour MPs split, depending on whether they represent a Leave-voting working-class seat or a Remain-voting metropolitan seat. Add to that a stuttering economy and public services showing the strain of austerity and the conditions are there for a revival.

I hope so, anyway. British politics is pretty depressing, at the moment. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour have shown themselves fit to govern, yet they’re currently the only show in town. If a new Centre Party isn’t going to shake things up, it’s up to the Lib Dems. Over to you, Vince…