Never a man to avoid confrontation, Vince Cable decided to tackle gossip about his conversations with Labour head on when he appeared on stage at the Lib Dem conference this lunchtime. He has ‘excellent communications with politicians across the spectrum’, he joked, then reached into his pocket for his phone, joking that he had a message from Ed.

He followed the same pattern as Tim Farron in criticising Labour’s record in government, just to make clear that the Lib Dems are fervently independent, rather than hankering after partnership with one party or another. But it was interesting that the majority of mentions for other parties in the Business Secretary’s speech were limited to criticism of Conservative ‘head bangers’. He said:

‘We have seen off the head bangers who want a hire-and-fire culture and seem to find sacking people an aphrodisiac: totally irrelevant in a country with flexible labour markets which have created over a million private sector jobs in the last two years. Instead, we have concentrated on practical tribunal reform and supported progressive firms who want worker participation and shared ownership.’

He mocked the Tory-led GCSE reforms, and said his plan for a mansion tax ‘horrifies the Tory backwoodsmen, but it is popular and right’. Coming right after a motion endorsing Plan A, Vince added his own piece:

‘Actually it is not a matter of Plan A versus Plan B or Plan C or even Plan V. Plan A+ is OK by me or plan A++ if you prefer. When we came into government we had to balance competing risks: of aggravating the economic downturn through excessive cuts versus the risk of losing the confidence of lenders. I believe we struck the right balance and adopted a deficit reduction plan. I make no apology for my continued support for that fiscal discipline.’

Cable is one of the only members of the cabinet who likes to refer to Plan A+. It’s a mark of his different attitude to coalition that David Hall-Matthews described in his interview with me. And his speech made the Liberal Democrat influence over those plus signs clear, arguing that ‘the need is for a demand stimulus’.

This was another muted performance, though. I remember Cable’s 2010 autumn conference speech really whipping delegates up into a frenzy, which this didn’t. It’s notable that the speeches from the two men whose names are most frequently mentioned in connection with a leadership bid — Cable and Farron — have both toned their rhetoric and energy down in their speeches this season.

Tags: Coalition, Lib Dem conference 2012, Lib Dems, UK politics, Vince Cable