Comment: Why the coalition can't cut the Cable

Vince Cable's potency has been highlighted by this week's furore
Vince Cable's potency has been highlighted by this week's furore

Vince Cable's potency has been increased, not diminished, by his undercover comments.

By Alex Stevenson

The business secretary - or minister for tuition fees as he is now affectionately known - may spend the Christmas break shuddering from the horror of what has just passed. He is being likened to Clare Short in the 'busted flush' stakes. That "nuclear option", we are told, has been detonated on himself. For Cable, then, the midwinter really is bleak.

By the fire in Downing Street the scene is more cosy. David Cameron and Nick Clegg are seemingly sitting pretty. They will be hoping their stern rebuke and demotion of Cable from media competition issues will have done the trick, shoring up the stability of their coalition as it serenely moves towards its first full calendar year in power. Here, at least, all is sweetness and light.

In fact both these scenes are illusory. The prime minister and his deputy have just moved another step closer towards disaster. And Cable's nuclear option has been strengthened, not weakened.

The problem centres on an awkward dichotomy - two uneasy facts which provide the ingredients for a recipe for instability.

First is the fact that Cable is a terrible politician. His strong suit was as the Sage of the Opposition Benches. In government he is suffering from a surfeit of candour.

Politicians take time to settle in: witness the agonies suffered by Boris Johnson's City Hall minders during the London mayor's first months in office. At least the floppy-haired one has a politician's instinct. What minister worth his salt would be so unguarded as the business secretary has been?

The truth is Cable has struggled to keep in his discomfort with the contradictions of life in government with the Conservatives from the outset. So it is no surprise he is the Lib Dem minister who walked furthest into the trap laid by Telegraph journalists. You might argue a bit of honesty is a good thing in a politician. Yes - to a certain extent. Knowing when to hold your tongue is far more important.

So much for fact number one. Left to itself a bit of clumsiness is manageable enough. Mix it with fact number two - Cable's pivotal position in holding the coalition together - and you're left handling the unstable, highly explosive mess of a government teetering on the brink.

Imagine a scenario where Cable had been forced to resign by the prime minister. The obvious contender for a senior Lib Dem heavyweight to replace him would be David Laws, who had to quit after just 16 days in the Treasury earlier this year. The well-respected Laws' return is openly craved by Cameron and Clegg. But in this instance the substitution would weaken, not strengthen, the government.

Laws is a right-wing Lib Dem, one of the co-authors of the Orange Book which so alarmed many of the party's left-leaning sandal-wearers. Cable is more conventional in his footwear choices, but his roots on the left of British politics help persuade uncomfortable activists that the coalition is worth sticking with. Cameron and Clegg, in short, need Cable.

This autumn Akash Paun of the Institute for Government explained that there were two ways the coalition would fall apart: because of a dispute between its leaders or because of a collapse in support for the project from either of the two party's grassroots. The former was improbable because Cameron and Clegg have invested so much of their own political fortunes in the coalition. "So I suppose my conclusion by deduction would be is that the internal party tensions are more likely to be fatal," he mused.

Coming so soon after the tuition fees trauma, Cable's embarrassing comments have shortened the odds of exactly this kind of collapse. Literally, in fact: bookmakers William Hill are now offering 4/1 on a general election in 2011.

They're right to do so. For as long as the business secretary remains in office he continues to hold the "nuclear option" over his colleagues. Although for the next few months that threat's impact will be diluted, its potency will gradually return. The likelihood that rebels "force the breakdown from within" following a Cable resignation may even be enhanced now that his key position has been highlighted.

This week's furore is bad news for Cable, but it's even worse for the coalition.

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