Vince Cable: "I'm not signing up to be a caretaker – I'm signing up to do whatever it takes"
At the age of 74, Vince Cable is on the verge of securing the Liberal Democrat leadership. But the former business secretary insists he is signing up to be far more than a ‘caretaker’. He talks to Mark Leftly.
Appropriately enough for a politician who was at the heart of an age of austerity coalition government, Sir Vince Cable’s new office on the third floor of Portcullis House is spartan. A laptop and small contact book full of indecipherable scrawls lie on his desk, while Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake drops by to offer Cable help in acquiring some new kit.
A portrait of the great 19th Century Liberal prime minister William Gladstone hangs on the wall. This is even more apt, because, as the years pass, Cable increasingly bears resemblance to the great man – and Gladstone last led his party to Downing Street at the advance age of 82.
Cable’s age, 74, has been much pored over since he put his name forward to succeed Tim Farron, a fell running Duracell bunny of just 47, as Lib Dem leader last month.
Unless any of the other 11 Lib Dem MPs have an unlikely change of heart, Cable will be party leader little more than a month after winning back the Twickenham seat he unexpectedly lost in 2015.
“Gladstone won an election… [aged] a lot older than me,” smiles Cable. “Churchill won an election and became prime minister in his mid-to late 70s. There was Ronald Reagan. I’m not saying I’m at that level, but it has happened and often worked well.”
The Lib Dems certainly hope so. The party’s appeal to the 48% of people who voted to remain in the European Union last year did not cut through as hoped on polling day. The party returned 12 MPs, four more than in 2015, including the return of Cable, former environment secretary Sir Ed Davey, and ex-equalities minister Jo Swinson.
But the Lib Dems’ share of the vote slipped from 7.9% to 7.4%. Farron quit after growing frustrated at questions of how he could square his devout Christianity with leading a party that is so often at odds with evangelists on gay rights and abortion.
When leadership nominations close on 20 July, the struggle for a Lib Dem renaissance will be handed to Cable.
The former business secretary might be a popular figure among the public – he is the first Strictly Come Dancing contestant to become a party leader – but not every activist is pleased by his sudden, uncontested resurrection.
A persistent rumour is that Cable will stand down in two or three years allowing a younger candidate to take over. His erstwhile colleague, former transport minister Norman Baker, hints that Swinson, who has just been made deputy leader, or Layla Moran, the highly regarded new MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, should be groomed for the top job.
Many activists feel a woman leader is vital given a party with such commitment to diversity has been so overwhelmingly represented on the green benches by middle-aged white men. “It’s asking a lot of someone of Vince’s age to be an MP and a leader, especially of a minority party that has to punch above its weight against Labour and the Tories,” says Baker. “He is a very senior figure, a very credible figure, with, in particular, economic credibility. It’s important he uses his time as leader to bring in new talent so by the time of the next election there’s a more diverse face [in charge].”
Swinson had been the bookies’ favourite. But she is still only 37 and decided the deputy position was “the right role for me now”. The other heavily tipped contenders, Davey and former health minister Norman Lamb, briefly teased the possibility of standing before opting against.
Cable tells The House, though, that he will lead the Lib Dems into the next general election, whether that is forced through the fragility of Conservative minority government this autumn or it survives a full five-year Parliamentary term. “I’ve made a commitment and I’m up for that,” says Cable. “Actually, the main pressures will be in the short-to-medium term, if there is an autumn election. I’m certainly in a position to handle that.
“But I think we’re assuming the most likely outcome is the government will survive the Brexit process and they then, if not before, change their leader, who will want a fresh mandate. So, two years down the line is another point at which an early election might happen.
“I’m ready for that. But if it’s necessary to soldier on, I’m willing to do it. I’ve made it very clear I wasn’t signing up to be a caretaker, I was signing up to do the job and do it properly and whatever that involves.”
Geoff Payne, the vice-chair of the party’s powerful Federal Conference Committee, claims some supporters have gone too far in their reflections on Cable’s age. He says: “These ageist comments are disappointing. Some of the greatest contributions to politics of the 20th Century were from people older than him.”
Cable points out that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn could be 70 at the next election and that 68-year-old David Davis might soon usurp Theresa May as Conservative premier.
He adds: “As the country has become more weighed down by the legacies of the financial crisis and it’s become clear that a bit of dynamism and enthusiasm isn’t actually the answer to deep-rooted problems, people are looking to – I wouldn’t say consciously – the idea that older people with some accumulated wisdom and understanding of history can make a good contribution.”
Much of the party’s leftwing moaned that the likely leadership contenders were members of the coalition.
One of Farron’s big selling points was he sat on the backbenches then, freeing him from accusations he was backing the Conservatives. Crucially, it meant he did not break a 2010 manifesto pledge of opposing a rise in university tuition fees; the Lib Dems never really recovered from their ministers voting for a trebling of fees.
A senior activist from the leftwing Social Liberal Forum of the party says Cable’s leadership fills that faction with “dread”, given he was in charge of the business department that pushed through the fees rise.
“Yes, tuition fees continues to be raised as an issue on the doorsteps, maybe encouraged by the Labour Party,” concedes Cable. “It is still there, but it’s not an all-dominating issue. It was after all, seven years ago and as I continue to remind people, the Labour Party twice promised not to introduce increased tuition fees and did so, despite having pledged the opposite.
“We made a bad political mistake in making that pledge… but actually the policy was perfectly sensible given the constraints we were operating under. The point I always made to the critics was, ‘how would you pay for universities?’ They’re very expensive.”
Activists are worried their MPs might be tempted to buttress the Conservatives once more. “Any deal to prop up this government would be seen as toxic – or would have to be pretty spectacular,” says the Social Liberal Forum source.
May has agreed a confidence and supply deal with the Democratic Unionist Party to secure a slim working majority on major votes. But DUP MPs have notoriously poor attendance records and at least one senior Lib Dem MP believes the party could hold the “balance of power” for votes on areas of mutual interest, such as housebuilding.
Reports this week suggested Gavin Williamson, May’s chief of staff, had recently bumped into Farron’s counterpart, Ben Williams, and asked when the Lib Dems could support the government.
“Nobody’s approached me,” says Cable firmly, repeating Lib Dem press office denials of any deal talks. “We’ve no intention of going into coalition of propping up a government. We are not about to go into any alliance with the Tories, we rule that out.”
“We’ve no intention of doing deals, but we will judge issues on a case by case basis and the phrase we use is ‘constructive opposition’. That’s our overall approach… We’re not talking about tactical support for a Conservative government, absolutely no way.”
He then laughs: “There are quite a lot of bills that aren’t very controversial, bills I started in government to do with commercial spaceships.”
Cable points out the “overwhelming” number of bills in the Queen’s Speech relate to Brexit. This, though, is another area where he has been treated with slight suspicion among activists.
Last year, he wrote a piece for the New Statesman where he made the case for curbing freedom of movement, one of the four central tenets of the Single Market. This article is still furiously debated in the comments sections of the Lib Dem Voice website.
Cable counters: “I was trying to reach out to a wider group of people who basically want us to remain within the European Union, but have difficulties over migration. I believe in the four freedoms. I spent my five years in government negotiating with European governments trying to persuade them to buy into the four freedoms… The Germans don’t have a commitment to free trade in services, the French have serious restrictions on the free movement of capital.
“The British are the boy scouts of the Single Market, always have been. My basic argument is we should be trying to find a way of accommodating public concern over migration and to do it while remaining in the European Union… I still believe with a little bit of pragmatism on both sides it would be possible to reach [an agreement].”
For all this controversy, Cable believes a second referendum on the Brexit deal, including an option to remain a member of the EU, is vital.
This scrutiny on Cable was unimaginable only a few months ago. He had developed something of a portfolio career – much of which he will drop, bar his weekly ballroom dancing lessons – and as recently as February hinted to The House that he would retire from frontline politics if a snap election was not held this year.
Now he stands as the only candidate to lead his party, which has angered activists who believe a party with the word ‘Democrats’ in its title cannot allow a coronation. “There is a view it would have been better to have an election and I agree with that,” says Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael, before referring to the most revered post-war Liberal Party leader. “Being elected isn’t the be all and end all. The last time we had an uncontested election was the late Jo Grimond and that didn’t end too badly.”
However, for much of Grimond’s leadership the Liberals were mocked for being able to hold meetings in the back of a taxi. The Lib Dems fear similar irrelevance today.
And Cable’s description of his forthcoming political novel, Open Arms, is not a good omen.
“It’s not going to qualify for the bad sex award or anything,” jokes Cable. “Half of it’s set in India and half of it’s set in the UK. It’s about clashes of identity and ethical issues around an arms contract.
“The Lib Dems don’t really feature, they’re there in the background.”
Cable will know he has been successful if he has no choice but to put the Lib Dems front and centre of the sequel.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.