Vince Cable: An asset come election time

Analysis: Vince Cable learns to be useful

Analysis: Vince Cable learns to be useful

Vince Cable has spent much of the last four years being a thorn in his leader's side. But now, as today's autumn conference speech in Glasgow shows, things have changed. With the general election looming the chastened business secretary has become an asset once again.

It had all gone horribly wrong. The machinations of Cable's 'ally' Lord Oakeshott had become so brazen that, this time last year, Cable seemed a virtually discredited figure, a man who too many grassroots members felt had crossed a line. He was too senior to be sacked, but too troublesome to be helpful.

So Cable retreated. He has kept a relatively low profile over the last year, sitting in his office on Victoria Street and quietly getting on with the business of, er, business. It's been a smart strategy. For now, with this conference season kicking off the pre-election buildup period, his brand of semi-academic lofty lefty anti-Tory whimsy is once again becoming useful to his party.

Every time Cable makes a big speech everyone is surprised by how much humour he sticks in. It seems unexpected when he is genuinely funny because they forget he's been doing it for years. This autumn, Cable has been surprisingly amusing once again. He talked of Gladstone's speech on the Bulgarian Atrocities, adding: "As far as we know, he didn't have to issue a statement the following day apologising for forgetting to mention Bulgaria or the Atrocities." And he showed he is able to come up with some decent one-liners, too. Here's two in a single sentence: "The Tories are reinventing themselves as Ukip but without the beer, while the Labour party is offering us French Socialism, but without the sex." It's actually laugh-out-loud funny. Who in politics – with one floppy-haired exception – is really capable of doing that?

Cable's real USP is his ability to combine dry-but-droll humour with an economic sagacity that, at its peak, made him look like some sort of GDP oracle. He remains one of the few senior Cabinet ministers to have actually held a major position at a big multinational before entering politics. These days Cable's coverage of the economy has shifted somewhat, though. He spends a lot more time in this speech talking up his achievements: an industrial strategy here, more apprenticeships there.

The business secretary has finally confirmed what we knew all along: he has been gritting his teeth while working in government. Now, as the need for Lib Dems to make clear how different they are from the Tories has become paramount, he is finally letting us know how he's feeling with the blessing of his colleagues.

All this is summed up in one paragraph which is really the key to the whole speech. Cable has been holding his tongue because of the bleakness of the situation in 2010, but he hasn't liked it one bit. As he explains:

"Let us remember why we are in government. That we joined the coalition because there was a national economic emergency. That we worked with the Tories because voters chose them as the largest party, not because we like them or because we ARE like them. That we have been a major engine of reform, not just a brake on their extremes. We are accused of abandoning progressive politics. We haven't. What we have abandoned is the politics of perpetual protest. Nick Clegg's biggest achievement as party leader has been to make that transformation."

This section contains it all. It replaces subtle digs at Clegg with an unequivocal comment of praise. It paints the Lib Dems as guardians of decency in the face of the Tories' ideologically-driven cuts – and yes, Cable is not afraid to use that label elsewhere in this speech. It reaffirms Cable's almost visceral hatred of David Cameron's Conservatives. It is exactly what the Lib Dems want to hear this week – because right now, it sums up their mindset exactly.

Most in Westminster write about the Lib Dems' differentiation strategy as a media ploy; a series of stage-managed spats with ministerial colleagues/enemies borne of the need to win votes rather than arguments. That is how last week's row over the Human Rights Act has been covered, but the Lib Dems know it's not quite like that. To those who have grown too comfortable in government with the Conservatives, Cable is delivering a wake-up call. To those who have never been happy with the Tories, Cable is telling it how it is.

It's the dominant theme of this conference season: a permission to revert to type. The Tories did it last week with tax cuts. Miliband, placing the NHS front and centre, told his party members: 'This is your legacy, now defend it.' Now Cable is encouraging the Lib Dems to come out fighting for their own values, independent of the constraints of government.

It couldn't be more handy for Clegg, whose conference strategy is based exactly around this point. There is only one small problem: that Cable's view of those Lib Dem 'values' is not shared by everyone gathered in Glasgow.

He is, first and foremost, anti-Tory. It's not always helpful. Take immigration, an issue which Cable has grumbled about for years. He doesn't like the Tories' bid to placate what he calls "their inward-looking, Ukip-facing grassroots, who probably see Clacton-on-Sea as the new Constantinople – holding out against the alien hordes". Cable sounds bitter when he talks about the impact on overseas students, and the impact on firms who need specialist skills from foreign workers. "But of course," he adds, "there is always a warm welcome for dodgy millionaires willing to make a large party donation for a game of tennis with Boris or Dave".

He is completely right, but the point is lost because of the oppositional tone in which it is delivered. Immigration is an area of failure for the Lib Dems; however much Cable moans, he shouldn't be talking about it if he can't demonstrate he mitigated the policy's impact. The business secretary praises Clegg for leading the Lib Dems out of opposition, but he sounds very much like a man out of power on this.

What he can offer, in the most visionary part of his speech, is a shopping-list of reforms which potential future Labour colleagues would fall over themselves to endorse. "I believe we should be pro-business but we should also be pro-worker," he says. He wants to widen full employment rights for those who don't have them right now – around a million, he reckons. Nothing could be tailored to a Lib-Lab coalition more perfectly than this.

It sends a clear message – but it contrasts directly with the comments from health minister Norman Lamb, who today warned he just can't see Miliband as a prime minister. He points out the Lib Dems may have a choice, too, in the event of a hung parliament: what if the Tories won the popular vote, but Labour got more seats? You couldn't ever say the two men would necessarily come to the same conclusion if they were part of coalition talks next spring. The Lib Dems have learned to live with their divisions, but that does not mean their accepted differences can't rip them apart in the future.

Between them, Cable and Lamb reveal just how open the Lib Dems' options are next year. The party will welcome Cable's speech for showing them how to fight against the Tories. But it will also remind them there is more than one way ahead.