What is Vince Cable up to? He is on manoeuvres, keeps making attempted power grabs from
George Osborne. Barely a week passes without him rattling the cage to which Cameron and Clegg have confined him – that is, the unwieldy and yet fairly powerless Department for Business,
Innovation & Skills. For all its bulk, the department doesn’t really do anything. It has the universities brief, which is important, but it is certainly not an economics department as
Cable was pretending last week. “It is a bit like the German economics ministry and the finance ministry,” he claimed. “Two departments, working in
parallel.” As if. Cable may like economics, but he is judged too headstrong (and, I suspect, vain) to work on the economics policy if the government. He has been kept a safe distance from it.
The last thing Britain needs is the idea that its economic policy is split between two warring Cabinet members. As CoffeeHousers know, I am sceptical about the idea of St Vince’s economic
genius – he flip-flopped during the crash and his instincts now are high-taxing and wealth-destroying.
He’d quite like to set economic policy, though, and as I say in my News of the World column today he keeps trying
to. He made an attempted putsch over the regulation of the banks, declaring it was within his brief. He has also made proclamations over capital gains tax, as if this were his brief. When Laws was
backing Redwood over the CGT compromise, Cable was calling for ever-higher levels. When you consider his behaviour in this short space of time, it becomes easier to understand why – even
though he is a former Chief Economist at Shell – he did not replace Laws as no2 at the Treasury. It would not be conducive to the stability of the coalition.
George Osborne has tried not to get sucked into a battle with Cable, and his strategy has been to just ignore him. So when Cable proclaims that he is somehow running an economics department,
Osborne treats this as if he had just declared himself Emperor of China. The truth is that Cable’s department is so irrelevant that the LibDem policy was to abolish it entirely, and put its
responsibilities back where they below (universities back to education, for example). Business, by definition, doesn’t need a government department to run it. Our trade policy has been set by
the EU since 1975. The Business Department simply is not a power base. All Cable can do is pretend otherwise.
Certainly, coalitions can work through structural tension – as existed in Blair v Brown. But Brown had the Treasury. Cable does not. Best he can do is sound off now and again: he cannot use
his department’s power, as Brown did under Blair, tug purse strings to seize control of domestic policy.
Cable is flogging two books right now: The Storm (Spectator review here) and his biography Free Radical. This is,
evidently, how he sees himself. My hunch is that he is mentally planning a new last chapter to this book – one where he plays some spectacular role. He is the bookmakers’ favourite to
be the next person to quit the Cabinet, no doubt in pique. I doubt that there is Osborne v Cable tension in this government for a simple reason. Osborne matters and Cable: not so much. But it
may, nonetheless, be entertaining to watch.