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Getting a good look at Vince Cable

Posted on 17 May 2009 | 9:05am

To the Charleston book festival yesterday so that Fiona could indulge her Bloomsbury thing, which I have never quite got, and I could take a good look at Vince Cable, to try to work out why he appears able to buck the trend in the dominant ‘all politicians are terrible’ culture.

I met him a couple of weeks ago at Westminster tube station and we had a little chat, in which I learned that he too finds his positive profile odd sometimes, that he was reading my novel, and was pleased I had found more balance in my life. He was also taller than I had imagined.

Yesterday allowed me a more sustained look, as he was speaking in a sesssion on Keynes and the current economic crisis (I’d forgotten that Keynes was a prominent Bloomsbury set member and had lived at Charleston) alongside Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky and, when he finally arrived, Will Hutton.

The place was packed out and Cable was warmly received, then introduced with a string of quotes from commentators saying how brilliant he was. He opened up with a comment on expenses which managed both to be self-deprecating whilst also making clear his claims had been modest.

His speech was interesting if a bit dry, and a little bit too long given that two more were to come before the q and a. But if there were three strengths I could point to, I would say that he described very complex economic events in simple language which non-experts could understand, he did not claim a monopoly on wisdom, nor that he was bound to be right, and whilst he was critical  of the government in several respects, he was not too strident.

He actually looks quite dull, and sounds quite dull, but the overall effect is interesting. He has both modesty and authority, which is another interesting combination.

But his biggest advantages are that he is not in government, and he is not a Tory. There were a couple of insights into the leverage that gives him. He was making the point that all parties will have to put up taxes if they win the next election, but then made a joke about how when he was interviewed on TV, and asked what taxes he would raise, he skilfully dodged the question. The audience chuckled. If it had been Alistair Darling or George Osborne up there, the same people would probably have tut-tutted and any journalists in the room would have rushed to file a story that could quite easily have been flammed up to contain the words ‘tax bombshell’ and ‘admits concealing the truth’. 

And when the panel was asked about the Euro (and remember the Lib Dems have always beeen in favour) he admitted we were probably better off for having stayed out. Again, nobody seemed to bat an eyelid. Had he been Labour or Tory, the admission that a major policy position was, er, wrong, would have caused more of a stir than it did.

I did not have a clapometer with me, but he was very loudly applauded and I do not doubt for one moment that he is his party’s greatest asset. I said here a while back that the lesson for politicians from the Susan Boyle phenomenon is authenticity and there is certainly an authenticity to Cable that appeals. But then I look at Alistair Darling and, knowing him as I do, I see a profound decency and authenticity in him too.

Which leaves me thinking Vince Cable’s greatest asset is that he is not in government and, unlike the Tories, he has been asking questions with intelligence, insight and consistency. It could be that he is a creature of Opposition not government. But I could sense there were a lot of people in the room who would be very happy to see him make the transition.

Meanwhile, an interesting observation from a woman who collared me as we were leaving. She said the expenses scandal was terrible, and listed some of the worst excesses, but then said she was thinking of giving up the Telegraph. ‘They’re taking it too far. Public interest is fine. Destroying democracy is not.’  I imagine the Telegraph have put on sales as a result of their expenses coverage. But it would seem not to be one way traffic.