Overrated: Vince Cable
Vince Cable: Does he deserve his reputation? (credit: Michael Daley)
During the last days of Gordon Brown's administration, as financial meltdown and eurozone crisis led up to the watershed election of 2010, "St Vince" was talked up as a prophet and saviour. Then, in the midst of the Liberal Democrat "bounce" campaign, Dr Cable — as he likes to be known — was said to be the popular favourite to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the event, he became business secretary; but at the nadir of recession in 2012, his outrider Lord Oakeshott renewed the call for a Cable chancellorship, deriding George Osborne as a "work experience Chancellor". Now there is renewed gossip about "Cable" as a potential Chancellor — only this time under a putative Lib-Lab coalition.
What this steady stream of speculation proves is not that Vince Cable deserves to crown his career in 11 Downing Street, but that he still hankers after the job and is not above manipulating the media to get it. Nobody should be deceived by this Yorkshireman's breezy, avuncular manner: his ambition is insatiable and his methods are ruthless. Having undermined two Liberal Democrat leaders, Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell, Cable briefly became acting leader. Though passed over in favour of Nick Clegg, he has never abandoned hope, especially now that Chris Huhne's downfall leaves Cable unchallenged as his party's voice on economic policy.
Nor has Cable disguised his view that the Lib Dems should be in coalition with Labour — the party to which he belonged for 17 years, from his period as president of the Cambridge Union in 1965 until his defection to the Social Democrats in 1982. Throughout his period as Business Secretary, Cable has promoted the interventionist politics he shares with his predecessors in the post, Michael Heseltine and Peter Mandelson. The traditional term for such policies is corporatism. Cable has had an undistinguished record at a "super-ministry" that was created for Gordon Brown's "First Minister", Lord Mandelson, and which should then have been broken up. Only Cable's vanity has prevented the universities being returned where they belong, to the education department, though he has generally left them in the safe hands of David Willetts. He resisted what he called the Tories' "Maoist revolution" in the early days of the coalition, and has continued throughout to press for big-government solutions.
The one exception was Post Office privatisation, a policy adopted by the Lib Dems during the heady days of their Orange Book phase, led by David Laws, Danny Alexander and Jeremy Browne. Such free-market ideas have been effectively scotched by Cable and his corporatist rhetoric — most recently on display in the debate over Pfizer's proposed takeover of AstraZenica, in which his view of Britain as a "knowledge economy not a tax haven" came through strongly. Alas for Cable, this is a false dichotomy: the most successful knowledge economies tend also to be those with the lowest tax, lightest regulation and least state intervention.