21 Dec 2010

Vince Cable: I could bring down the Government

David Cameron and Nick Clegg have sung the praises of Coalition Government and backed Vince Cable, despite his comments to reporters that he had the “nuclear option” of walking out if pushed too far.

Vince Cable threatens to bring down the government (Reuters)

In a scheduled joint press conference, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister said the “embarrassed” Business Secretary had apologised for his comments, made to undercover reporters from the Daily Telegraph who were posing as Liberal Democrat voters in his constituency.

Vince Cable told the undercover reporters he had the “nuclear option” of walking out of Government, which would “bring the Government down”, if he was pushed too far.

He has since said he “regrets” his comments, which dominated today’s press conference held by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders.

‘Shock, horror’

As they listed achievements made by the Coalition since its formation after the election in May, both Nick Clegg and David Cameron stressed that disagreements were part of how it operated – so long as a combined front was eventually agreed.

“Shock, horror, two different parties have different ideas,” said Mr Clegg.

“As far as Vince is concerned, he’s embarrassed by what happened and he’s right to be. I’ve spoken to him this morning, and my view and his view is that Coalition Government, any Government, can only work effectively over a period if time if disagreements – which of course exist – if those differences are thrashed out in private, then we come to a common solution and are united in taking that forward, and that’s the way this Government is going to work.”

Mr Cameron added: “Do we in this Coalition have disagreements, arguments, which we work out in private and then make announcements in public? Yes we do. I would say judge the Coalition on the record of what it’s done. We couldn’t do that without a good working relationship and a very strong team in the Cabinet.”

Nuclear option

Despite the united front shown by Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron, Mr Cable’s comments shine a light on internal divisions within the Coalition – and further bolster the common perception that he is one of the Liberal Democrats finding the compromises particularly difficult. He has previously spoken out against the Government on issues including the immigration cap and banker’s pay.

At the constituency surgery, Mr Cable was asked about his influence in Goverment. He responded: “Can I be very frank with you…I have a nuclear option, it’s like fighting a war.

“They know I have nuclear weapons, but I don’t have any conventional weapons. If they push me too far then I can walk out of the Government and bring the Government down and they know that.”

If they push me too far then I can walk out of the Government and bring the Government down and they know that. Vince Cable

Mr Cable – who has faced a lot of pressure in recent weeks over the Liberal Democrat tuition fees U-turn – also disclosed that the business of government in the Coalition involved a “constant battle” between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. He added that he believed David Cameron would scrap or reduce the winter fuel allowance paid to pensioners from next year.

In the secret recorded conversation, Mr Cable also said the ministers should be “putting a brake on” some proposals, which are in “danger of getting out of control”.

The cut in winter fuel payments has since been denied by Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander and David Cameron reiterated that there would be no changes to the police outlined in the Comprehensive Spending Review. Vince Cable was also backed, despite the embarrassing comments, by Chancellor George Osborne in the Commons today.

Responding to a jibe from Labour Shadow Chancellor Alan Johnson, Mr Osborne said: “The Business Secretary is a powerful ally in the Government in promoting growth and, frankly, has forgotten more about economics than the shadow chancellor ever knew.”

Mr Cable himself insisted he remained committed to his role in Government.

“Naturally, I am embarrassed by these comments and I regret them,” he said.

“I have no intention of leaving the Government. I am proud of what it is achieving and will continue to play my full part in delivering the priorities I and my party believe in, which are enshrined in the Coalition agreement.”

At what point will the Cable snap?
It is the question that may determine the longevity of this government, Economics Editor Faisal Islam wrote in September.

When will the man lionised as an economic prophet in much of the UK, winner of Channel 4's Chancellors debate, decide the coalition has compromised his principles too far?

The short answer is "not any time soon", but my assessment is that does not mean "never".

Read more on at what point will the Cable snap?