WORDS: PAUL WAUGH AND SAM MACRORY
Vince Cable is doing what Vince Cable does: demanding a ‘national strategy’, calling for proper research and warning of the dangers of not distinguishing between productive migrants and those who can deplete populations. “Without the facts and evidence you can’t have sensible policy,” he says, getting animated about one of his favourite topics.
But before his critics pounce, this is not another Plan B. It is instead a “Plan Bee”, a call to arms to both help one of our oldest industries and save the environment at the same time. British bee communities are being wiped out by plagues from imported queens and action is needed.
A patron of his local beekeeping society, Cable was passionate about the issue for years in Opposition. “I think we need a national strategy to support the ecological balance that bees need to survive and flourish… Yes, a Plan Bee,” he says.
Of course, the Twickenham MP is now very much in Government, but that belief in evidence-based, Government intervention is still clearly what drives the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills through the twists and turns of Coalition.
Sitting in his eighth floor office in Victoria Street, Cable can celebrate some big ‘show me the money’ wins in the Budget. He’s secured nearly £1bn for his much-cherished industrial strategy, a seven-year commitment to aerospace, agribusiness and the motor industry. This is on top of the £600m he secured for science in the Autumn Statement.
In many ways, his allies think 2013 is The Year of Vince. His once lonely call (in the Coalition at least) for more capital spending and reliefs has been heeded. His ‘responsible capitalism’ agenda will bear fruit this year with boardroom and shareholder changes. He’s outmanoeuvred the Treasury by getting a £1bn business bank – in return for a Tory policy on employee share rights that has been gutted by the Lords and snubbed by business. A Green Investment Bank has been secured, as well as a proper split between ‘casino’ and ‘retail’ banks. Cable has even delivered 50% departmental efficiency savings while gearing up the Royal Mail for a sell-off.
But most of all, he says he’s won a fight to focus on the long term.
Having privately made the case for a greater push for capital spending to drive growth, Cable broke cover this month with a New Statesman essay. In it, he suggested that the “balance of risk” had changed and that the Government “could borrow more… in order to finance more capital spending”.
He admits he’s not sure whether George Osborne “read it really word for word”, but he stresses that the Treasury cleared the piece. “I benefited from helpful suggestions, let’s put it that way,” he jokes. Apparently Rupert Harrison, Osborne’s Chief-of-Staff, even told Cable his arguments made perfect sense. “That was Rupert, rather than the Chancellor,” Cable wryly responds.
A few weeks on, he stresses that “there’s no absolute right or wrong”, and that “I do respect the Chancellor’s position”. But with the Chancellor calling for a further round of departmental spending cuts to find an extra £2.5bn to put towards capital spending, it seems as though Osborne respects Cable’s position too.
Vindication, perhaps, for the Business Secretary? “Yes – I think as part of a broader narrative about the need to get capital investment moving one way or another, I do feel we’ve made some headway with that argument,” he replies. “It is something I’ve been going on about since we came into the Government. I’m pleased that there is now much more emphasis.”
And Nick Clegg, having warned that there was no “magic wand solution”, also seems persuaded.
“Well, I don’t see it in that kind of personalised way. I think it’s more the kind of Treasury orthodoxy which is, you know, moving in the right direction now,” is Cable’s diplomatic reply.
The Business Secretary says he “didn’t feel ambushed” by the announcement that the investment would be funded by departmental cuts, but as the self-appointed shop steward for the National Union of Ministers, Cable has been fighting to protect budgets. He jokes: “The comrades are still at work. We’re not out on the picket line, we’re doing our jobs…” But with the Home Office, MoD and DCLG set be spared ahead of the next Spending Review, Cable’s own department may have paid the cost for his calls for capital investment.
He says he won’t know the damage to the BIS budget “until we engage in close negotiation or close combat or however you choose to describe it”, but is confident that support for science and industrial strategies are positive signs.
In particular, he says, the announcement on the aerospace industry is hugely significant. “Having achieved that shift to long-termism, more strategic thinking, I think that’s far bigger than, you know, bits of money here and there, it’s the change in the mindset.”
But does the emphasis on capital investment pose a risk to the industrial strategy?
“Well it’s a key concern that we have to maintain that,” Cable admits, before laying down a challenge for George Osborne: “I don’t think the Chancellor would have agreed to support the programme that he has this weekend if there’d been any doubt of his commitment to it. The Prime Minister is very much behind it as well. It’s not going to be undermined in the next three months. There will obviously be arguments about particular lines, but the basic argument has been won.”
While he knows cutting budgets is part of any Cabinet minister’s brief, Cable would prefer a rebalancing of the cuts/taxes equation. “We’re just going to have to be flexible about it on all sides and one thing I publicly questioned is whether the mix of tax and spending cuts is right – the 85/15 formula. Well, I would question that. Maybe something more does have to come from tax and the Lib Dems have got a variety of ideas on how to do that. Not all of them popular with our colleagues,” he sets out.
One tax proposal more unpopular than most with the Tories is the Lib Dems’ cherished ‘mansion tax’ – but Cable is refusing to rule out its permanent demise despite David Cameron’s opposition.
“I would say it’s unlikely to happen in this Parliament given the very strong position the Prime Minister has taken up on it. I didn’t completely give up on it because very difficult trade-offs are going to have to be made in the next few months and some parts of Government, and some Ministers, are going to have to accept things they don’t like in the Spending Review, and other things are going to have to come in into play, so it’s not totally dead,” Cable says.
Tellingly he names Cameron, not Osborne, as the mansion tax’s principal opponent. So was the Chancellor prepared to consider it?
“Well he’s saying… he’s made the case publicly against it and as I understand it there is now a settled Tory view which is critical of it, so that’s what we’re dealing with,” Cable replies.
Given that Cable acquiesced on Tory calls to cut the 50p rate of income tax in the last Budget, was there a sense of betrayal that backing for a mansion tax didn’t follow?
“No, I didn’t feel betrayed at all,” Cable insists. “I made the case that it would have been perfectly sensible to move to a lower rate provided you have a genuinely equivalent tax on wealth, of which the mansion tax was one. That wasn’t, in the event, deliverable so they went for a smaller reduction the top rate combined with a variety of measures in relation to stamp duty and other things which had the effect of taxing richer people. It isn’t as comprehensive, as bold, as the trade off that I was promoting, but it did achieve the objective the Lib Dems were aiming for, of getting some additional fairness in the system.”
Some reports suggested that Cable lacked support from Danny Alexander, with the Chief Secretary’s boast that there isn’t a “cigarette paper” between him and George Osborne rather too accurate for Liberal Democrat comfort.
Cable describes Alexander as “a Treasury minister and Treasury ministers have obligations to protect the public purse”, as well a “good Lib Dem… I am pushing a Lib Dem agenda, I am also a departmental head and I work alongside Tory minsters who come from a different place politically but we work together as a team, and Danny is doing the same thing at the Treasury”.
Alexander also forms part of the exclusive ‘Quad’, with Osborne, Clegg and Cameron, which meets to settle major policy issues. Perhaps Cable would like to be included?
“It’s not a club I am fighting to get into,” he insists. “Actually it doesn’t work in that way. It’s a much more flexible system and if issues arise which affect me I’m involved in the discussions.” Which happens often? “Yes. It frequently does.”
One area where he won’t be quiet is on the banks. Cable admits that there is “a lot of unfinished business because the banking crisis has caused immense damage – it’s still causing immense damage”. And while he’s confident that Government action on the Vickers report is solving the “casino banking versus ordinary lending” headache, the problem of “Walmart lending rather than relationship banking” remains.
“They are very slowly, painfully, trying to recreate them and some of the better banks, and I would single out, under the new management, Barclays, [who] are really applying their minds to this very seriously, the new banks like Handelsbanken and Metro and Shawbrook and Aldemore are doing this, but the big unfinished business is trying to construct a banking system that is competitive, diverse, has strong relationship banking, is focused on SMEs. We don’t have that.”
Cable is proud that “the one big contribution I hope I’m making is creating new institutions in the banking field”, namely the Green Investment Bank and the Business Bank. For both, he says, it’s a case of “walking before we run”.
As for the oldest bank, the Bank of England, Cable welcomes Mark Carney opening up the idea of its remit going beyond inflation. “There has been a genuine worry about deflation, when all kinds of extremely unorthodox monetary policies are having to be tried, when we still haven’t got growth and in that kind of world you do have to ask the question, what is the central bank there for?”
On immigration, Cable is not up against the Chancellor, but Theresa May. He says there is “an inherent tension” between wanting to reassure people about border security and the need to give UK higher education and business the people they need. “We want overseas students, they are good for us, they are not bad for us. They bring in lots of money. We want to have lots of visitors from all over the world coming here without hassle, an easy flexible visa system, and we have lots of highly specialised people like engineers, top managers who we need in our companies and they’ve got to be able to come and go freely otherwise we are not going to be able to compete internationally. So I do have to keep banging the drum for that.”
But isn’t the Home Office on track with its stated target of cutting net migration to ‘tens of thousands’? Cable is swift to point out the commonly made category error on this one: “It isn’t Government policy, it is Conservative policy. And it’s also not true because that policy purely relates to non-EU people. We have obviously no control over the European Union and that is actually where much of the movement comes.
“And a lot of the public anxiety which is experienced in by-elections and elsewhere has actually been about people from Eastern Europe. Now, you can argue whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing but it’s got nothing to do with the non-EU, which is the area which is controlled by Government.
“The reducing to under 100,000 is not Government policy and if it was attainable enormous damage would be done, notably through overseas students, which is one of the biggest components.”
So, does he think the ‘tens of thousands’ target won’t be hit by end of this Parliament?
“It’s not something Government [can deliver]…the argument that Government can somehow deliver this, when you think about the logic of it: net immigration means reducing the number of people coming in or increasing the number of British people emigrating. Is that the policy objective? I don’t know…” He smiles one of his Sphinx-like smiles.
A further area of tension with the Tories came over Leveson-style press regulation. After his very public humiliation over the News Corp BSkyB bid at the hands of the Daily Telegraph, Cable can be forgiven for feeling he’s had the last laugh.
He refuses to crow, however, stating simply that what’s emerged is “sensible, reasonably well balanced”. But what should happen to those newspapers and others who don’t sign up?
“As the Prime Minister set out yesterday, there are carrots. If they want to avoid the risk of damages in civil courts, there is an incentive for them to cooperate. But I think they will. I’d be very surprised if they went off and did their own thing.”
Cable is careful not to draw too many conclusions from the close working between Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg over Leveson. He adds: “I think we have to have sensible working relationships with the Labour Opposition. I’ve done this anyway. Not for partisan reasons, but because there’s a lot of issues which I deal with which spill over into future Parliaments – and if you want to get support for the industrial strategy or banking reform you’ve got to get the Labour people to agree to it.” Cable also says it’s clear the party will have to return to Paddy Ashdown’s famous “equidistance” at the next election.
At that election, he will be the ripe old age of 72, but he has no intention of standing down. “The campaign is being organised in my constituency. I take the view that as long as you’ve got bags of energy and stamina and capacity to do the job, and I do have a lot of energy and stamina, I’m perfectly fit and healthy. I don’t have any inhibitions about it.”
With many looking to Cable as perhaps the next Lib Dem leader in a Lib-Lab government, that youthful outlook could persuade his party not to write him off. He points out that many of the most unpleasant attacks on Sir Ming Campbell were about his age. “I thought that was very unfair, actually, what happened to him. It was as bad as attacking people for their colour, for their gender. Pathetic actually, it demeaned the people who did it, so he was very unfairly treated.”
Ken Clarke is 72 and still going strong, so is he an example of the value of experience over youth? “Yes. Well, we’ve actually had Michael Heseltine in here [BIS] and I think he’s a decade on isn’t he? I think Hezza has demonstrated it doesn’t matter.”
Maybe Gladstone is the real role model? “Yes, well, he became Prime Minister when he was over 80, didn’t he, I think. Churchill was over 70 wasn’t he?”
Cable famously once dubbed the Coalition’s abolition of regional development agencies as “a little Maoist”, but he prefers more reforming Chinese leaders. He adds another octogenarian politician worth noting. “Talking of role models, Deng Xiaoping totally transformed China in the last century. I think he was 80 when he took over. And he survived the Long March.”
Cable’s own long march from the wilderness of third party politics has seen him come from rank outsider to one of the few MPs who has increased his majority with every successive election. The reason is “hard work by me and my team. Whether you’re in government or out, you have to do constituency things, people do expect that.”
His ballroom dancing is one way of staying sharp, but he also reads a lot because “it helps to keep me reasonably sane”. “And I walk a lot and I cycle – keeps me fit.” Given his punishing schedule of party as well as ministerial events, he needs to be.
But, as the Lib Dems mark their 25th anniversary, the Business Secretary is also old enough to remember what it was like when the party was created all those years ago.
“I had just been adopted as a candidate in Twickenham when our poll ratings weren’t registered: it was an asterisk, we were below 3%, the dead parrot and all that. But, you know, we realised actually that those national ratings are actually completely meaningless.
“And as it happens my local party had a strong base on the ground and we realised if we worked we could win the seat, which we did eight years later. It requires that kind of long-term, guerrilla warfare approach.”
A long-term guerrilla fighter on both policy and politics, he is clearly focused on the 2015 battle and beyond. The Lib Dems may be “cockroaches” to Tim Farron, but Vince Cable often resembles a hyperactive bumblebee, working all hours for the party cause. And in case there’s any doubt, he can still sting.
Cable on....Theresa May's ConHome Speech
“I was quite taken aback by it, actually, because I think two-thirds of it was a eulogy of the industrial strategy. I’ve not heard her say it before, but, you know, imitation is the best form of flattery, I just take it, take it on the chin.”
Cable on....Putting more money in the Business Bank
“It may well be that over time there will be the need for more resources going into it, but there’s no point starting up with vast sums of money and just looking for ways of spending them. It’s much better to develop a clear rationale about the gaps in the market, filling them, and then coming back for more.”
Cable on....Coalition's being here to stay
“I think they are much more likely given the way that the public have moved away form a very binary tribal system. You still have a lot of that around but the electorate is looking for other positions and it’s more likely that you are going to get coalitions in future. And this is a pioneer.”
Cable on....RBS and Lloyds
“You’ve got two semi-state-owned banks...one of them’s lame and the other’s crippled and they’re not contributing to the real economy because they are deleveraging like mad. And it’s painful and difficult. Until these banks are operating normally we’re not going to have sensible banking.”