Labour piles pressure on coalition over Cable-gate

Vince Cable faces questions over his ministerial conduct
Vince Cable faces questions over his ministerial conduct

By Peter Wozniak

Vince Cable and Jeremy Hunt's ministerial conduct has been called into question by Labour after the business secretary's unguarded comments to undercover journalists.

Ed Milband earlier laid into the coalition as a "sham", as three more Liberal Democrat ministers had their concerns about coalition policy publicised by a broadsheet newspaper.

Potentially more damaging is shadow business secretary John Denham's letter to Sir Gus O'Donnell. In it, he asks whether Mr Cable had breached ministerial codes over his comments about Rupert Murdoch's takeover of BSkyB.

He added: "Mr Cable's comments also call into question his ability to rule on competition issues involving other businesses, which remains part of his brief, or to take forward the review of competition policy.

"Businesses will find it difficult to have confidence in a secretary of state who says one thing about competition issues in public and another in private."

The responsibility for the decision on the bid has now passed to media secretary Jeremy Hunt.

But Mr Denham also used the letter to highlight comments made by Mr Hunt on his website.

The culture secretary is quoted as saying: "Rather than worry about Rupert Murdoch owning another TV channel, what we should recognise is that he has probably done more to create variety and choice in British TV than any other single person".

Mr Denham implied this might bring the culture, media and sport secretary's own objectivity into question.

Mr Cable barely survived in his job as business secretary after revelations yesterday evening.

Meanwhile Scottish secretary Michael Moore, and junior ministers Steve Webb and Ed Davey, all had conversations recorded by Daily Telegraph journalists posing - as they did with Mr Cable - as constituents.

All three divulged more details on tensions within the coalition, with criticism of changes to child benefit, housing benefit and evidence of lingering Lib Dem anger on tuition fees.

Ed Miliband made hay of the news, claiming it demonstrated the Lib Dems in government were "passengers who have got themselves locked in the boot".

Mr Moore called cuts to child benefit to end its universality "blatantly not a consistent and fair thing to do", while Mr Davey said the change, announced at the Conservative conference amid a storm of controversy, "came out of the blue".

He continued: ''It was at Tory party conference and we had no, or at least I had no, knowledge of it and suddenly they announced it and I have to say I was as shocked as everyone else. I mean, I'm going to lose about £1,000 a year. And, I was, frankly, gobsmacked when it came."

Mr Webb, meanwhile, claimed he had written to the chancellor saying the details of the policy "aren't right".

Employment minister Mr Davey also revealed coalition tensions over planned housing benefit changes which would, he said, "put people below the breadline".

The continuing discomfort in the party over the vote on tuition fees was further exemplified in sharp relief in the recordings of Michael Moore, who added: "I signed a pledge that promised not to do this.

"I've just done the worst crime a politician can commit, the reason most folk distrust us as a breed. I've had to break a pledge and very, very publicly."

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg dismissed the 'revelations' as entirely natural given the nature of coalition.

He said this morning: "I don't think we should be surprised by the reports of what other ministers have said that there are differences of opinion in the coalition, as there are indeed in all governments."

Newly elected president of the party Tim Farron went further, adding the revelations were "quite helpful as they remind people the reality that you've got two distinct and individual parties that are compromising".

But shadow work and pensions secretary Douglas Alexander said the evidence of discomfort at the highest level of Lib Dems in government showed it was "obvious just how little influence the Lib Dems have on this Tory-led government" - continuing the favoured current line of attack from Labour.

He added: "Government ministers are only saying in private what we have been saying in public - their changes to child benefit are ill thought out and unfair."

The new revelations of unhappiness among Lib Dem elements of the coalition come after Mr Cable had his job in the government hang in the balance over comments he made to the undercover Telegraph reporters.

He claimed he had "declared war" on Rupert Murdoch - a claim that landed him in hot water due to his impartial role as business secretary in the controversial takeover bid of BskyB.

In the event, he kept his post as business secretary, but suffered the ignominy of having his department's responsibilty for media competition shifted to Mr Hunt's Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Mr Cable will take no further role in the bid deliberations - currently being considered by watchdog OfCom.

Deputy prime minister Mr Clegg attempted to draw a line under the incident. He told reporters: "I think it's obviously very unfortunate. Vince has apologised for what has happened. He recognises himself that he should not have done it.

"And, as he himself recognises, he can't carry on taking responsibility for that particular decision and that particular policy area."

But the Labour leader suggested the 'new politics' of coalition was, "in fact, a sham".


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