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Best Media Stories: 25/02/2008 - Guardian praise for Vince Cable

25 February 2008 - Guardian praise for Vince Cable

The cult of Cable

By Michael White in The Guardian, 20th Feb 2008

Vince Cable was right about Northern Rock, he stood up for human rights by snubbing the Saudi royal family and made the nation laugh by likening Gordon Brown to Mr Bean. All this, and he dances too. Michael White writes in praise of the Lib Dems' late-blooming star

What does the lovely Alesha Dixon, star of Strictly Come Dancing, have in common with The Red Paper on Scotland, a volume of high-minded leftwing theories published on cheap paper in very small type in 1975? A clue may be necessary. It is bald, very witty and might well win a competition for Britain's Most Popular Politician if a poll were held today.

Yes indeed, the link between Alesha and the volume edited by a young Gordon Brown is her one-occasion-only dancing partner and Brown's fellow-contributor, Dr John Vincent Cable MP, PhD, serious economist, serious ballroom dancer and general good bloke.

He has risen faster than Obama while managing to be almost as old (64) as 71-year-old John McCain. Where has this "Vince for King" movement come from? And does it have staying power? Let us explore the improbable Cable cult before popping down to Ladbrokes.

As Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham since 1997, his party's grandly titled shadow chancellor since 2003, Dr Cable - Vince to everyone - was the man who wowed an unexpectant nation when he became acting Lib Dem leader. His reign lasted for 64 all-too-brief days between Ming Campbell's political execution and the coronation of Nick Clegg on December 18. But it was both clever and fun.

That was two months ago, a geological era by modern media memory standards. Yet Vince remains a Big Story around Westminster and - more surprising - a presence on Facebook and rival sites, where the kids seem to like him. When in December he noted "the prime minister's remarkable transformation in the last few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean, creating chaos out of order rather than order out of chaos," they laughed. They may not have heard of Mr Brown, but they know all about Mr Bean. It was his best quip since November, when he warned that the government was propping up Northern Rock to the tune of 30 Millennium domes, "without even the prospect of a decent pop concert at the end of it".

The enjoyable fact is that Cable simply refuses to get back into his box as the clever-but-dull economics spokesman the world thought it knew. Eat your heart out, Nick Clegg. Glower if you must, prime minister. Expend more midnight oil on those spontaneous gags, David Cameron. You will all have to raise your game to match Vince's ready wit.

Though TV loves to mangle politicians' jokes, Monday night's news bulletins did their best to clip Vince's jibe at Alistair Darling when the chancellor announced the nationalisation of the shipwrecked Northern Rock Bank.

Consciously refusing to say: "I could have told you so" - and thereby showing up George Osborne's party point-scoring - Cable suggested that when Goldman Sachs' fat bill for advising on the Rock crisis arrives at the Treasury, Darling should send it back with a note saying he had received "rather higher-quality advice free of charge" from the Lib Dems.

Fair point, Vince. When Northern Rock went belly up and went to the Bank of England for help in September, Cable immediately urged nationalisation as the course for the Treasury to adopt.

Voters may not notice the nuances, though some will remember that puritan Cable had been warning against Britain's growing personal credit card debt for several years. Now Cable's early call on the Rock had been vindicated, in sharp contrast to the havering of the Conservatives. Cameron and Osborne are clever too - and have more of a political future - but they lack experience and judgment. On the Northern Wreck, Dave'n'George have been all over the shop. Osborne's attack on Monday missed its target, and Cameron has been awkward too.

In CV terms the comparison is absurdly unfair. Cameron was born in 1966, the year after Cable was elected president of the Cambridge Union in succession to Norman Lamont, a future Tory chancellor. The son of a working-class Tory lecturer, the future funster grew up in York and went from Nunthorpe grammar school to read natural sciences and economics at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.

Not yet bald, the gangling polymath switched from being a NatSci to complete a PhD in economics at Glasgow University, which is where he first fell in with Labour. Rebelling against his father, he had been a Liberal at Cambridge, expelled for apostasy after seeking to form links with the university Labour club.

You get the picture: he is a natural apostate, a characteristic that makes more conventional politicians nervous. That may be why he did not hesitate to boycott the visit to London in November of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah. By contrast, when Nick Clegg was recently asked whether Gordon Brown should boycott the Beijing Olympics, he said he should go and engage. Sensible but dull. No Facebook applause for that answer.

Clegg was briefly an assistant to Leon Brittan when he was EU trade commissioner and helped negotiate China's entry into the World Trade Organisation. Vince has more real-life experience than that. Between Cambridge and Glasgow he probably exercised more power than most MPs ever get near. As Treasury finance officer to the Kenyan government (1966-68) he was de facto deputy to the finance minister with what the young idealist knew even then was a ridiculous amount of power for a 23-year-old.

But King Vince has never been a man to let his undoubted ambition turn his head. He has always been sensible. It may have held him back, but it has probably made him a nicer person, a paid-up member of the human race with whom you could safely be marooned on a desert island.

Can you imagine being marooned with any prime minister you can remember? Can you imagine any of them helping to clean the hut or collect the coconuts? William Hague was clever and witty too, but there has always been an alien strand of kryptonite in him. But Vince is all flesh and blood.

Our hero returned from Africa with a bride. Vince married Dr Olympia Rebelo, a Kenyan Asian of Goanese heritage who introduced him to dancing and became the mother of his three children. But Cable's father was a man of his time and did not welcome a mixed marriage in the family. They did not talk for many years.

As a university lecturer in 1970, Vince first ran for parliament in posh Glasgow Hillhead. He lost and became a Glasgow councillor, knew Gordon Brown slightly and did not spot his potential. He wrote a chapter (Glasgow: Area of Need) in Brown's Red Paper book. He joined the diplomatic service and worked in overseas development. In the late 70s he was even a special adviser to Brown's patron and mentor, the late John Smith, then trade secretary in the Callaghan government.

Where was it all heading, Vince must have wondered. There was no hint then that he nurtured an ambition to dance on the telly with a young pop star. During the Thatcher era he spent nine years at the Commonwealth Secretariat across St James's Park from Westminster, before joining Shell, whose chief economist he became in 1995.

Ladbrokes, please note, that is not a job major multinational oil companies give to dumbos they want to shift out of accounts: it is proper work. When Vince makes a confident response to a Gordon Brown steamrollering in the Commons, MPs listen as they do not to many colleagues: Vince is sometimes wrong (who isn't?), but he knows his stuff.

How did he come to be a Liberal again? Didn't we leave him as a Labour councillor in Glasgow? Not a place for faint-hearts. Yes, and Vince admired the pragmatism of working-class Labour Glasgow. It was coming back to London to encounter the capital's far left wing that put him off.

Losing the Hampstead nomination to Ken Livingstone in 1979 (Livingstone lost the seat and took over the old GLC instead) may have added to his disdain, but Vince rarely shows anger or pique among colleagues. He became one of the early defectors to the SDP breakaway from Labour in 1981; fought York in 1983 and 1987; Twickenham (where he lives in a 30s semi behind a very high hedge near the rugby ground) in 1992. He finally won it when Tony Blair's landslide swept the Tories away in 1997.

All of which adds to the Cable mystery. Why did he take so long to emerge as a star, the man who would be in a Labour or Tory cabinet if he were Labour or Tory? The truth seems to be that it took him a while to cotton on to the need to talk in layman's language about economic matters. Harolds Wilson and Macmillan - both future PMs but dull speakers in their youth - took time and conscious effort to become wits.

The more serious the issue, the more pressing his need to use eye-catching language. "I've begun to realise you can't use academic language, you have to think in images," he explained after likening Darling's first £24bn lifeline to Northern Rock to "30 Millennium domes". Remember, really clever people don't always spot what's obvious to the rest of us.

But if he's so smart why didn't Dr Cable run for party leader, either when Charlie Kennedy's was pushed off the boat in 2006 or two years later when Sir Ming Campbell got the heave-ho? You'll like this bit: it's a mixture of honour and common sense.

When senior Lib Dems finally lost patience with Chatshow Charlie's drinking, Vince was among those who gave him a shove. He circulated a letter which colleagues signed, telling Kennedy he had lost their confidence. As senior plotter, Ming was urged to stand while the likes of Cable, Clegg and Chris Huhne agreed to give him a clear run against Simon Hughes, perennial also-ran.

Huhne later changed his mind and ran, one reason for the Clegg-Huhne frisson that persists. Vince, who does not gossip or plot in bars, emerged untarnished and became deputy leader. When Ming's colleagues decided last autumn that it wasn't going to work, he thought about standing.

But his own judgment, reinforced by colleagues, was that a decent, well-educated clever bloke with more brains than follicles had just flopped as leader, so another one wouldn't work either. Better to skip a generation to Clegg, who had long since been picked for greatness, rather as future Dalai Lamas are. "I accepted political reality," Cable admitted.

This, of course, turned out to be a mistake, and he has publicly regretted it. Clegg likes and trusts him. How could a man Vince's age be a threat? Yet him being an unlikely star makes it awkward and John McCain's resurrection makes it more so. Did the party get it wrong in picking callow youth and good looks over brains and a touch of The Addams Family?

As acting leader, Dr Vince threw caution to the four winds and struck out like a batsman in search of a quick century against inferior bowling. Everyone started laughing with him. Labour MPs know he believes in many things they want too: social justice, fairness in taxation, greenery, rational policies based on evidence, not Tony Blair's hunches. Tories liked him because he had yanked his party back in the direction of market-oriented solutions to many of life's problems.

Cameron even said he'd happily have him on board. This may be relevant if Labour loses its overall majority in 2009-10 and Clegg's team has to manoeuvre in the first hung parliament since 1974. He will need some grown-ups to prevent the Tories stealing his wallet. Dr Vince should still be around.

After Olympia died of breast cancer in 2001, Vince braced himself for a "lonely old age". But in the course of making a fierce defence of free trade at a meeting of New Forest Liberals he clashed with a divorced woman farmer who complained that such talk threatened her livelihood. It goes without saying that the Luck of the Cables ensured that he married Rachel Wenban Smith in 2004. His second wife has taught him to ride and everyone says they are very happy. She even attends Lib Dem conferences: it must be love.

But all fairy stories come to an end. If Vince had not merely been acting party leader with nothing to lose and no one's career to threaten, MPs might not have been so nice to him. The media might have mocked him, the kids on the Popbitch website might have yawned or shuddered at the very thought of such a wrinkly daring to aspire to greatness.

As it was, Vince had his extended 15 minutes of fame unsullied by nastiness and thoroughly enjoyed it. He got to dance on the telly with Alesha, and some observers concluded he dances rather better than she does. But the future belongs to gilded youth, so who's counting? Vince is old enough and wise enough to know when to be grateful.

The wisdom of Vince

"The House has noticed the prime minister's remarkable transformation in the last few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean, creating chaos out of order rather than order out of chaos."

"Tony Blair was widely criticised for advancing £800m for the Millennium dome. But in the past few weeks this government has provided the equivalent of 30 Millennium domes to this bank - without even the prospect of a pop concert at the end of it."

"I wouldn't say I enjoy Prime Minister's Questions - it's rather like downhill skiing: exhilarating, but full of peril because you can crash at any point."

On not standing as Lib Dem leader: "I did seriously think about it, and I knew I could do it and would do it well, but the general consensus among colleagues was that, because Ming Campbell was almost kicked to death because of his age, they couldn't risk a candidate of the same generation."

"The government does seem to have an extraordinary search engine, which finds banana skins to fall on."

Vince Cable’s week:

Observer 24th Feb 2008

Northern Rock means a hectic time for the Lib Dem's Treasury spokesman. Then Gene Hackman keeps him up far too late. As for his constituent who needs some help with breast enlargement ...

A new week begins on Saturday. Calm after the emotional rollercoaster of a political week culminating in my Friday evening constituency advice surgery in Twickenham. About par last week. Homeless family: three kids. Two asylum seekers whose papers are lost in the black hole of the Home Office. A woman whose pension has disappeared in a bureaucratic maze. Unfair parking fine. Local hospital horror story. Mr Angry who wants something done about next door's house extension. Ten others, including a young woman who thinks an MP is the best person to help her get a breast enlargement.

After breakfast, settle to a pile of correspondence, helped by my favourite bits from The Magic Flute. Not for long. Help is needed setting up a local party fundraising do that evening. Wife Rachel needs, and deserves, TLC after hundreds of calls to members drumming up support and making desserts. Then a large pool of water appears under the washing machine. Where are the Polish plumbers when you need them? Rachel and I perform DIY. Party organiser sounds desperate: immediate help needed to deliver food and raffle prizes. I tell him that Man Utd v Arsenal starts shortly. Fantasise about how Stalin would have dealt with the situation. Reflect on the merits of big, dodgy donors.

Function goes well despite everything. An eighth of one of Rachel's cows, which she farms in the New Forest, attracts high bids in the Dream Auction. Not all Lib Dems are vegetarians. Dinner is, however, interrupted by Sky camera crew and Five Live radio car wanting instant response to story about overpaid, undertaxed fat cats. Bad thing. Politics has taught me not to overcomplicate issues.

We go home happy with enough money for the next three leaflets. Late-night call from younger son, Hugo, in Louisiana. He's worried about his future as a theoretical physicist. I suggest returning to London to make a fortune as a mathematical 'quant' in the City. Not that desperate, Dad, he says.

Sunday starts with grandparenting. Young Charlie arrives, plants a kiss and disappears, beaming, into granddad's Aladdin's cave of toy cars and Lego. Only reappears when my daughter Aida, a supermum, whisks him off to delight another doting grandparent. We then move furniture and set up dustsheets for Bob the Builder who is due to knock two rooms into one. Hopes of reaching an oasis of quiet are dashed by call from party press office. Northern Rock nationalised. Get down to TV studios, pronto. Driving to Shepherd's Bush the mobile rings continually. Am tempted to answer, but saved by imagined headline of MP in dock on dangerous driving charge.

I assumed the government would sell to Richard Branson. Wrong. They did the right thing in the end - the least unsatisfactory way to safeguard taxpayers' money. Vindicated, though colleague texts to warn me that I am saying: 'I don't want to crow about this' too often. Mustn't sound smug. Try harder to be statesmanlike.

The media round goes well. Channel 4 News sends a crew to Twickenham and they eventually find an angle between the dustsheets. A far cry from the days when I sweated blood to get a passing mention in the inside pages of the Richmond & Twickenham Times. But fame comes at a price: missing a visit to my other grandson Ayrton and his Slovakian granddad and missing my Sunday dancing class.

Media frenzy continues at 6am with GMTV outside my front door. Minus five degrees and a baffled milkman worried about the strange goings-on at 102. Kate Garraway talking to me about banking rather than dancing while I blow frozen breath into the camera. Surreal experience ends with car to whisk me to Today and new media round.

Back home for a visit and photo opportunity at a post office in Teddington threatened with closure. First law of politics: the constituency comes first. Not to mention numerous Lib Dem workshops on the importance of communities and the political ground war. Cross producers in the media centre have to wait for the air war to recommence.

A visit to the Chancellor with Lords colleagues before his statement in Parliament. He remains calm, courteous and lawyerly, even on death row. Then I prepare a public response to him. I panic that my stock of one-liners is drying up. I needn't have worried. Government appoints two non-doms to look after taxpayers' money. I couldn't have made it up. The media buzz continues even though the boil has now been lanced, leaving only a trail of pus.

When I reach home, I try switching off by switching on the telly. Bad mistake. The French Connection and Gene Hackman. Get to bed ridiculously late.

Tuesday and the government wants to scrutinise and pass the complex nationalisation bill before midnight. My party supports the bill but we worry about the details. George Osborne offers co-operation. Very affable despite my barbed comments about him the previous day. Thick skins needed in politics. Debate and amendments get to 11pm. Then chaos. What is Granite? What is Northern Rock? No one in government can tell us what we are taking over. After all, what's a few billion here or there? With late vote, I miss the last train to Twickenham and arrive home circa 2am. Greatly regretting Gene Hackman.

Next morning first thing, my Lib Dem Treasury colleagues meet. Sharp, highly motivated group of MPs, peers and researchers. Politics is a team sport, not for prima donnas. Wednesday is also Nick Clegg's turn in the spotlight. PMQs. Always a nerveracking battle against a wall of noise, especially for the Lib Dem leader. But Nick is doing well. Good content; good, confident delivery. I head off to King's Cross to lead seminar on Muslim finance. British sharia isn't about chopping off hands, but complicated financial instruments to avoid sin of usury. Ethical financing surely harmless: indeed, a good thing.

The evening is ring-fenced for my elder son Paul's birthday. Rachel and I take him to the Festival Hall to hear an amazing young Armenian violinist, Sergey Khachatryan, play Tchaikovsky. Paul is a fine musician himself who now mixes singing with family, teaching and good works. On the train home, he tells me about his trip to India's fourth world backwater, Bihar, where he was supporting a Buddhist project helping Dalits (untouchables). Since my first wife, Olympia, died, our links with India and her family have been weakened. Feel sense of wholeness that Paul is discovering India and reconnecting the extended family.

Northern Rock week ends, appropriately, with visit to Newcastle for Question Time. The audience contains people whose jobs are on the line. One man has also lost his life savings. Much damaged north east pride.

Tempted to play to the local gallery. But some home truths are necessary. The business will have to contract even under nationalisation. The taxpayers' money must be repaid.

Back to London on early train. Then, head back for weekly MP advice surgery. That is where we can make a real difference: off stage, out of the limelight.

The Cable CV

The Life Born York, 1943. Read natural sciences and economics at Cambridge. President of the Cambridge Union. PhD in economics from the University of Glasgow. First married Dr Olympia Rebelo, who died in 2001. They had three children. In 2004, married Rachel Wenban Smith. Keen ballroom dancer.

The Work In 1970, unsuccessfully fought Glasgow Hillhead for Labour, and later became a Glasgow councillor. Left Labour for the SDP in 1981. Academic and economist including chief economist at Shell 1995 to 1997, when he won Twickenham for the Lib Dems. Main economic spokesman since 2003; deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats since 2006. Acting leader between Menzies Campbell and Nick Clegg.