Without a shadow of a doubt: Vince Cable should be the Lib Dems’ Shadow Chancellor at the 2015 election

Vincent CableOne of the quirks of being in coalition is the Lib Dems no longer have a shadow chancellor. But we shall need one in time for the 2015 general election – not least for the traditional televised ‘Ask the Chancellors’ debate.

There have been newspaper reports that there’s some jockeying for this position, with the Financial Times reporting that “Senior Lib Dems say the high-profile job is very likely to go to Danny Alexander, the Treasury chief secretary”.

Meanwhile, over at the New Statesman, Lib Dem blogger Richard Morris suggests pensions minister Steve Webb should get the job: “suddenly, there’s a new name in the frame for that plummiest of jobs in an election campaign”.

It is absolutely clear, though, who should be the Lib Dem shadow chancellor at the next general election: the guy who was our shadow chancellor at the last general election, Vince Cable.

He is, by a long, long way, the best-qualified candidate. I say that for two reasons.

First, his understanding of the British economy far exceeds that of either Danny (or Steve). It is impossible to imagine anyone other than Vince writing as good and nuanced an account of the Coalition’s economic policies as he did last year in the New Statesman: When the facts change, should I change my mind?

Secondly, his understanding of the politics far exceeds that of Danny (though not necessarily Steve). Vince has walked the tightrope of respecting collective cabinet responsibility while signalling quite clearly when and why he disagrees with the Conservatives, most notably on immigration.

And yet, as Jonathan Calder highlighted yesterday, he is unafraid to take the fight to Labour also, offering a parliamentary tour de force that utterly floored those Opposition MPs trying to score points against either Vince or the Lib Dems.

I can imagine the reasons why Nick Clegg would want to elbow out Vince in favour of Danny. I cannot see any reason why he would so in the best interests of the Lib Dems, though.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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45 Comments

  • Is this wise? The tuition fees/HE funding debacle is now coming to a head. Vince owns this policy. This will be a significant issue in the run up to the 2015 election.

  • Richard Whelan 22nd Mar '14 - 1:51pm

    Won’t our Ministers remain Ministers as have been the case in previous elections with the incumbent Government, meaning that Vince will still technically be Business Secretary? How will it work? We shouldn’t allow the Tories to claim all the credit for the Government’s successes by resigning all our positions in Government, creating a ‘Shadow Cabinet’ and leaving the way clear for the Tories to do exactly that, do we?

  • In the electoral campaign, I cannot “imagine the reasons why Nick Clegg would want to elbow out Vince in favour of Danny”. Care to enlighten me? Vince is no leadership threat and his is the voice that was not heeded before and after the financial crisis hit the economy in 2008.

    Danny Alexander is improving his debating style, but he would be too easily brushed aside. Danny’s only advantage is that he has been more involved in the detail of treasury discussions and in theory can more effectively rebut erroneous Conservative claims. However Vince’s status cannot be attacked by the others without diminishing their own credentials.

  • Tony Dawson 22nd Mar '14 - 4:14pm

    In these matters, style is as important as (unfortunately, often more important than) content. So having Vince do this job (which is a temporary media role until the election outcome is known) is a ‘no brainer’.

  • I agree with Stephen Tall.
    Vince Cable is a league ahead of any possible rival for this role. Who are the anonymous Senior Lib Dems that the FT report as promoting Danny Alexander?

    Let us remember that Danny Alexander only got the ministerial job in the treasury because David Laws messed up. Danny’s political experience beyond his current post is — let’s use a polite word — limited. Danny’s political skills are not that obvious, he is probably a nice guy and everything but he has had plenty of opportunity over the last four years to shine and he has not. Most damning of all for Danny is that during this parliament he has been George Osbourne’s side-kick, not best placed therefore to take on the Tories in a General Election and to any potential Tory voters who might be sympathetic to us, why would they vote for the oily rag if they can vote for the engineer?

    There is also the inconvenient possibility that in the not too distant future Danny may be a citizen of an independent Scotland. But since the Liberal Democrats became a Unionist Party I suppose we have to pretend that could not happen.

  • David Blake 22nd Mar '14 - 5:40pm

    I agree with John. Danny is better than he used to be on television, but he doesn’t have the authority that Vince has.

  • Bill le Breton 22nd Mar '14 - 5:49pm

    I agree with Lord Bonkers: http://liberalengland.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/vince-cable-gives-commons-master-class.html

    If you read Cable’s reply to Ed Balls and, as the noble Lord also mentions, his skill at dealing with interventionists during the debate, you will see just how good he is.

    So there really is only one reason why anyone would not what Cable to lead on economic policy for the Party now and up til election day …

  • Paul Pettinger 22nd Mar '14 - 6:27pm

    The Leader’s and Chancellor’s debates would be punishing, as well as more than a little megalomaniacal

  • “traditional televised ‘Ask the Chancellors’ debate.”

    Traditional ? You mean the one time it has happened ?

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Mar '14 - 4:10am

    Danny Alexander would be the better choice, in my opinion. As much as I like Vince, I think, despite what everyone says, he is too close to Labour. The only thing I don’t understand about Danny is why the support for Help to Buy.

  • I prefer Danny’s politics to Vince’s but still tend to agree that the latter a better bet for this role

  • @ g
    “Is this wise? The tuition fees/HE funding debacle is now coming to a head. Vince owns this policy. This will be a significant issue in the run up to the 2015 election.”

    No it won’t. Only for Labour supporters determined to drag up something from five years ago.

    And it also risks exposing Labour’s lack of any coherent answers whatsoever on this question, as on SO MANY others.

  • Mike Tuffrey 23rd Mar '14 - 9:12am

    The LibDems have to position ourselves in the General Election as having a plan for the future of the economy, not just a view about the public finances and tax-and-spend. If that’s accepted, then the choice of spokesperson is obvious, not least because Vince can point to the things he has being doing to rebuild and rebalance the productive economy (‘good start’ rather than ‘mission accomplished’).
    I would argue that the future of our economy is all about putting long term thinking at the heart, recognising natural resource limits, focusing on resource especially energy efficiency – all the things we’ve been arguing for first in The Green Book and now The Green Manifesto – but that’s a debate for another thread.

  • Danny remains evasive on TV and lacks any televisual charm or warmth. He is also too tied to the right wing of the party. Vince at least has some remaining shreds of social democrat integrity.

  • RC, I suggest you read this http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/massive-budget-hole-predicted-as-rab-charge-rises/2012189.article

    This is a very, very serious issue that should not be dismissed as a Labour smear – not least because it’s nothing to do with them.

    We’re talking about the future of HE here, there are hundreds of thousands within the sector and millions pass through it every year. It matters.

  • I listened to Vince’s masterly speech demolishing Ed Balls in the kindest possible way. He took an amazing number of interventions from Labour members and, as I recall they were all respectful – almost diffident. This might be contrasted with the raucous contempt which greets Nick Clegg. There is a message here which the Party chooses to dismiss.

  • Adrian Saunders ought to Know! A view is emerging that UKIP’s attraction is because of disillusion with main party politicians. No single individual has done more to feed this contempt by those ordinary people with only a superficial interest in politics than Nick Clegg and Tuition Fees.

  • Chris Manners 23rd Mar '14 - 7:30pm

    “And yet, as Jonathan Calder highlighted yesterday, he is unafraid to take the fight to Labour also, offering a parliamentary tour de force that utterly floored those Opposition MPs trying to score points against either Vince or the Lib Dems.”

    Unfortunately that speech was full of rubbish- albeit spoken by Tory MPs, with this supposed intellectual Titan Cable agreeing.

    You’d think that some fantastic export led recovery had taken place. It hasn’t. Manufacturing 8% below peak. General economy 1.3% below peak. House prices rising way ahead of incomes, most in London.

    More unbalanced than before.

    The OBR see net trade adding virtually nothing to growth.

  • Chris Manners 23rd Mar '14 - 7:32pm

    “it wasn’t Vince Cable who instructed us to abandon the Coalition Programme for Government and vote for tuition fees rather than abstain, and thus break our pledges not to vote to increase tuition fees.”

    So he’s the Secretary of State for it, but it’s nothing to do with him?

    Pull the one.

  • Chris Manners 23rd Mar '14 - 9:23pm

    I’ve never been called Chris Curran before…

    You sure you want to bring up the Coalition Agreement? Elected PCTs and all?

    I respect you personally and understand what it’s like when you’re let down by your own party, but Clegg, Laws and all had no intention of honouring it, any more than the Tories did.

    Vince Cable being given some licence to differentiate doesn’t really make any difference.

  • Jack McKenna 23rd Mar '14 - 9:44pm

    Many people who dislike the Lib Dems still have a lot of respect for Vince Cable, it’s not been forgotten that he was the only politician who predicted the banking crisis.

  • Jack McKenna 23rd Mar '14 - 9:44pm

    Many people who dislike the Lib Dems still have a lot of respect for Vince Cable, it’s not been forgotten that he was the only politician who predicted the banking crisis.

  • Strangely, Mike Smithson thinks “The LDs would be fools to choose Cable over Alexander as shadow chancellor at GE2015”:
    http://www1.politicalbetting.com/index.php/archives/2014/03/23/the-lds-would-be-fools-to-choose-cable-over-alexander-as-shadow-chancellor-at-ge2015/

    Personally I think they’d be insane to choose Alexander over Cable …

  • “predicted the banking crisis”

    He made a statement in 2003 about house prices raising unsustainably, yet this had no effect on Lib Dem policy and, besides, everyone could see that house price rises were insane in 2003. In government he allowed the help-to-buy-scheme to be implemented. What was the point of his 2003 statement and how is it relevant to anything?

  • Peter Watson 23rd Mar '14 - 11:11pm

    @Adrian Sanders “Page 31 of the Coalition Programme for Government stated: ‘If the response of the Government to Lord Browne’s report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote.’”
    Sadly this means that our MPs planned to break their pledges before they went into coalition and before Lord Browne had made any recommendations, and only days after they had accused Labour and Conservatives of plotting to increase fees.
    Furthermore, a recent thread on this site (http://www.libdemvoice.org/alistair-carmichael-on-chris-huhne-he-put-the-t-in-cancun-38644.html) hints at the pressure that Lib Dem whips were applying to get MPs to vote for the policy (as well as a worrying disregard for the party’s green reputation).

  • Chris Manners 24th Mar '14 - 12:09am

    “Many people who dislike the Lib Dems still have a lot of respect for Vince Cable, it’s not been forgotten that he was the only politician who predicted the banking crisis.”

    He said some stuff about too much credit, but a Chancellor can’t really say too much like that, for obvious reasons. Cable supported light touch regulation too, and somehow reinvented himself.

    Something that could have been done to reduce the credit (blunt instrument though it is) was increase interest rates. Sadly, Brown handed over power to the Bank, as if this is some sort of non-political issue. Not seen Cable or anyone else challenge that.

    Best system we had was under Major. Bank publishes advice, Chancellor decides. Clarke defied the Bank and was proved right.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 24th Mar '14 - 8:37am

    I am going to respectfully disagree with Stephen. In truth, I would much prefer to see Vince as Shadow Chancellor, but if Nick undermined Danny, that would be a major news story that would overshadow the entire election campaign. It would look like Nick had no faith in his Chief Secretary and none of the media would talk about anything else. It would be an extraordinary gift to our opponents.

    Much as I may disagree with Danny, and sometimes I do think he’s shown more pride in the welfare reforms than I as a social liberal consider appropriate, I also take issue with John Tilley’s comment about Danny only being there cos of Laws’ resignation. His position of Secretary of State for Scotland was not as if he was on the tea boy. He was on loads of Cabinet committees and charged with really being Nick’s eyes and ears across government. However, he had to give all of that up when he became Chief Secretary. That meant that our operation across government suffered.

    Without question, though, Danny has been right up there with Nick doing the troubleshooting across government, backing him up in, for example, stopping the web snooping stuff, stopping the Tories going even further with welfare reform, fighting for the fulfilment of our promise to raise the tax threshold. Whatever you think about that, it’s clearly popular, which is why the Tories are falling over themselves to try to make it their own. When issues become troublesome in the Government, it’s Danny that’s with Nick in there in the Quad trying to sort them out.

    Vince is to the Shadow-Chancellorship what, for me, Tom Baker is to the Doctor. That doesn’t mean he can or should go back to that position. What must happen, though, is that he must have a very high presence in the campaign. We need to hear his voice.

  • His position of Secretary of State for Scotland was not as if he was on the tea boy

    Caron,
    I know that you folks north of the border see things differently. especially as you are all Unionists now. Down here in the deep South of another country, especially amongst the Westminster/Whitehall toffs and mandarins, that is exactly how the secretary of Secretary for Scotland is seen in a post devolution world. Tea boy. What else does he do? In fact some would not trust the holder of that post with making the tea, whoever it happens to be. Who cares who the Secretary of Statefor Scotland is? It is not a proper job.

    I seem to remember some Liberal Democrat MPs calling for the post to be abolished because now that Scotland has a Frist Minister with devolved powers there clearly is no job for a grandly named Secretary of State.
    But that was before they put on their Coalition Glasses and we had to pretend that everything was suddenly different.

    Even if it had been a proper job I do not think the three weeks that Danny Alexander held the title was quite enough for him to work out which drawer in his desk was the one to keep his pen in.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 24th Mar '14 - 9:23am

    John, the point was that in that job, when the referendum was only a twinkle in Alex Salmond’s eye, that Danny’s role was actually meant to be much wider across government. He was on so many different cabinet sub committees, keeping his eye on what was going on across the whole government. He was very firmly Nick’s deputy with responsibilities that went way beyond his official job as Secretary of State for Scotland. When he left, Mike Moore was not given the same responsibilities. That made sense as he wasn’t part of “the Quad” (horrible, pretentious name). My point was that Danny’s job was substantial whereas you’d made it sound like Nick had brought in the tea-boy to the Treasury.

  • Peter Watson 24th Mar '14 - 11:50am

    @Caron Lindsay “I would much prefer to see Vince as Shadow Chancellor, but if Nick undermined Danny, that would be a major news story that would overshadow the entire election campaign.”
    I think that sums up the dilemma very well, and is why selecting a Lib Dem shadow chancellor for the election campaign is not as straightforward as it might appear.

  • Matt (Bristol) 24th Mar '14 - 1:05pm

    I see the dilemma that is being pointed to, but I think it is an open secret that the only reason Vince Cable is not at the Treasury now in any role is that:
    a) the junior partner party in a coalition would not be allowed to capture the main economic role
    b) Mr Cable playing second fiddle at the Treasury would never have suited the personalities involved and carried an almighty risk of constant infighting beyond anything we have seen to date; also he had the calibre for a high-profile, lead-minister role.

    I don’t think anyone would argue, in a hypothetical scenario where the LibDems were still in government and Vince Cable was still prepared to serve in the Shadow Cabinet, that he would be doing any any role other than Shadow Chancellor. Danny Alexander is capable and (now) experienced; why can he not in an election situation be considered as the proposed LibDem candidate for First Secretary to the Treasury or even Business Secretary (Steve Webb can have the role Danny Alexander doesn’t get)?

    The key thing is that we have 2 talented ministers in the same party whom it could argued are candidates for the same role: so they need to talk to each other and the leader and sort out how between themselves to shape and advocate an conomic and business strategy for the country that expounds the values of the party they represent, and keep communicating throughout the campaign. Not that difficult, surely, when it’s in both of their interests?

  • “In truth, I would much prefer to see Vince as Shadow Chancellor, but if Nick undermined Danny, that would be a major news story that would overshadow the entire election campaign. It would look like Nick had no faith in his Chief Secretary and none of the media would talk about anything else. It would be an extraordinary gift to our opponents.”

    Why should it be seen as undermining him, though? In normal circumstances the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is a very junior member of the Cabinet. Cable is certainly the party’s most senior minister in the economic sphere. No one saw it as a demotion of Cable, as the former Shadow Chancellor, when he was made Business Secretary and Laws was made Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

    On the contrary, if Alexander were presented as the party’s Shadow Chancellor, it would be seen as a snub to Cable, and rightly so.

  • Caron,
    I probably should not respond but I promise I will say no more on this subject after this.
    Danny Alexander was there for three weeks. It does not matter how important the job was perceived to be at the time, he was not there long enough. it is not a ministerial background of significance on which to base future appointments, especially a principle role in a general election.

    My final, final point on this, is a point of information. For anyone who does not know, being a minister on lots of different Cabinet Committees and sub-committees often boils down to reading e-mails. Or it bolls down to having a SpAd or a civil servant reading e-mails for you. If anyone thinks that ministers spend their time rushing from one Downing Street room to another for meeting after meeting of cabinet sub-committees they are mistaken.

  • Julian Tisi 24th Mar '14 - 1:51pm

    I agree with Stephen Tall. Interesting that Stephen favours Vince and Caron favours Danny, which on a traditional left/right split you might not expect. Anyhow….

    I think there are 3 key reasons for having Vince in the Chancellor debates. First, because the public recognise him and respect him. To Joe Public, he’s still a major asset to our party, giving us an economic credibility that is worth gold. Second, because he’s hugely and by a country mile more competent on the economy than anyone else, though this is nothing against Danny who I think has done a great job.

    But third, because Labour are trying to own him and convince the public “we agree with Vince and in fact Vince agrees with us, but Nick doesn’t agree with Vince”. Labour are trying to create a wedge between Vince, who they know the public respect, and Nick who they’ve spent the past 4 years trying to demonise. BrianD makes the good observation that Labour don’t want to openly criticise Vince and I think this is the reason. But Labour’s parrallel world where they agree with Vince and Vince agrees with them will come crashing down once Vince sticks it to them – as we know he can do and has done. http://liberalengland.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/vince-cable-gives-commons-master-class.html

  • The question that is being avoided is whether Vince is better in role, like where he is presently, where he is largely free to speak his mind, or in the more restricted role of Shadow Chancellor where gaffes – such as his handling of the investigation into Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., can be very damaging.

    Of cause, we shouldn’t rule out a peerage…

  • From the post: ” I can imagine the reasons why Nick Clegg would want to elbow out Vince in favour of Danny. I cannot see any reason why he would so in the best interests of the Lib Dems, though.”

    I take it that Stephen is referring to the “Yes, Prime Minister” insight that, for a politician, the greatest threats come from his own side and not the other. That is indeed how it works but what is to stop an insecure politician acting to put personal motives ahead of Party and national interests? How many politicians would even make such a distinction in their own mind?

    This makes me wonder if Lib Dems have got the way the Party works at this level seriously wrong. Basically (and this is a general point, not about Nick Clegg specifically) any party leader who is a reasonably good communicator (meaning an adequate TV performer) will thereby retain the support of a majority of the membership. Even if that support is somewhat grudging the Party culture is to be rather fawning towards the leader so, for all practical intents and purposes and barring some major blunder, he remains invulnerable. It’s not even obvious that there is any great pressure to accommodate rival strands of thought within the Party and, bringing me back to the starting point, almost none to utilise the skills of others whose ‘big beast-ness’ might be construed as a threat. Of course this doesn’t mean that such talents would be left on the back benches. It would be perfectly easy, for example, to put someone in a nominally important job but then largely freeze them out by failing to support them.

    Is that really what the framers of the Party constitution planned or is it an unintended side effect?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 24th Mar '14 - 9:07pm

    Julian, don’t think I didn’t think the fact that I plumped for Danny and Stephen went for Vince was a little weird. It is.

  • This is a massive decision. Key to minimising losses in May 2015 will be convincing left leaning voters that we still have social democrat credentials; their votes will be crucial in the many LD-Con marginals we’ll be defending.

    Alexander is very much committed to government policy, unpopular policy to many including the type of voters I described above. Cable has managed to maintain a greater distance and that will be valuable in the campaign.

  • “I think there are 3 key reasons for having Vince in the Chancellor debates. First, because the public recognise him and respect him. To Joe Public, he’s still a major asset to our party, giving us an economic credibility that is worth gold. Second, because he’s hugely and by a country mile more competent on the economy than anyone else, though this is nothing against Danny who I think has done a great job.”

    I am JoePublic and I don’t respect Vincent at all. I think he is vastly over-rated and has shown poor judgement on a number of occasions.

    I really dislike Danny Alexander.

  • “Cable has managed to maintain a greater distance and that will be valuable in the campaign.”

    See I don’t think of that as being an asset. We don’t want politicians who keep ther distance, it makes us question what they actually stand for, if anything. I’m afraid I don’t actually know what Cable believes in anymore. He is in the Govt but largely outside it, he was against tuition fees but presided over their massive increase etcetera. I’m afraid Vince does not come across to me as a man of vision, leadership qualities or personal strength in any way or shape at all. I see no achievements from him at all in his current role.

  • In any case I think it’s quite clear from what Nick said (or did not say) on Call Clegg that he has already decided it is going to be Danny.

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