Sketch: Vince Cable and the coalition of doom

The business secretary opted to give the "sunny uplands" a miss this year. His speech was a masterclass of misery.

By Alex Stevenson in Birmingham 

Vince Cable has a reputation for straight talking. It's got him into trouble once or twice in the last year. Maybe that's why so many Lib Dems turned up to hear him address the party conference in Birmingham.

Last year he had given the capitalists something of a lashing, sending the activists into a frenzy. This year Cable was more subdued, more measured. He resembled a Biblical prophet of disaster. If the Israelites had held party conferences before having to flee Egypt, it would probably have resembled something like this.

The beginning was subdued, dark, without much hope. In other words, a window into the souls of Lib Dems.

"These are dangerous times," he began slowly, blinking out at his audience from above his spectacles. By line eight he was comparing the economic situation to the troubles faced by a country in wartime. I half-expected the lights to flicker ominously. Delegates listened, attentively, to the Sage's wise words of doom.

Having established an atmosphere of catastrophe, the business secretary began lightening up. It's hard to be a harbinger of anything when you're listing government projects. So he soon moved on to the importance of financial stability and stimulus.

These are also rather dry subjects. But Cable has the knack of using humour to make them more interesting. He deployed Santa Claus and a classic phrase that only those over 50 can really get away with ("pull the other one!") to get the first tentative laugh. At last! Having got used to party president Tim Farron's mode of delivery, which seems closer to a stand-up routine than a political speech, party members needed some kind of light relief.

This served as a warm-up for the biggest laugh of all, which was targeted against the banks, of course. They "operate like a man who either wears his trousers round his chest, stifling breathing, as now, or round his ankles, exposing his assets", Cable explained, a smile crinkling his eyebrows. Appreciative, taut laughter filled the conference hall. "If they've got any!" Cable added. Another big laugh.

If he hadn't expressed regret earlier in the speech that ministers had not secured "tighter control" on bank pay and bonuses, perhaps it would have felt a little less like gallows humour.

The groundwork of the first part of his speech proved critical in another area, too. Cable had been unusually supportive of the coalition of which he is part. Maybe he felt the gaze of party leader Nick Clegg, watching attentively from the front row on Cable's left, more keenly than usual.

"What this period of crisis should have taught us, above all, is humility," he suggested humbly. "And humility in politics means accepting that one party doesn't have all the answers. Working in partnership is progress, not treachery." That got some hearty clapping, alright. For a man stripped of his responsibilities over the BSkyB takeover bid, whose plain speaking had got him into a lot of trouble in the last 12 months, the words were doubly resonant.

Cable is no spent force, however. After lightening the mood with that banks' assets joke, he quickly reverted to type with the most punchy section of all.

Some words act as signposts in politics-land. When a politician uses the word "solidarity", they do so in the full knowledge that it is more or less owned by those denizens of the left, the trade unions.

"I want a real sense of solidarity," Cable said firmly.

"That does not mean that we go round in blue boiler suits carrying little red books, though I suspect that some on the right believe that is my agenda." Even by highlighting the political enemy, those on the right, he was sending a message.

There followed the now-familiar attack on "irresponsible capitalism" – focused quickly on News International. Having pledged to go to "war" against Rupert Murdoch's media empire and nearly lost his job as a result, the gleam in his eye as he referred to the phone-hacking scandal was thoroughly audacious.

"Some of you may have noticed that one of the big media companies has recently had a spot of bother," he said gleefully. "I think you know who I mean." This was gloating on a big scale. The Cable face broke into a cheeky smile. Is there such a thing as an old scamp?

The stage was set for a finale of excitement and confidence. We were even let into the production process.

"Let me say in conclusion that when my staff saw my draft of this speech they said," – and here Cable raised his arms up and down to indicate them talking like a marionette puppet – "'we can see the grey skies – where are the sunny uplands?'

"I am sorry," he said, peering out bleakly. "I can only tell it as I see it." What he sees, it seems, is heavy, persistent, unrelenting rain.

There was one opportunity in the script for being upbeat, but it was not taken. "The truth is that these are difficult times… but we can turn the economy around," he said. This last note of optimism was uttered without a scintilla of real passion, or even belief.

He seemed exhausted. The final conclusion, a mixed-up point about fairness and something or other, was confused and needed improvising. Delegates gave him a standing ovation, but it felt like they were on autopilot.

Ending on a down note is not a traditional part of the party conference playbook. Thank goodness for that bankers' assets joke, which saved this from being nothing but a litany of hopelessness and despair.