Thursday, 13 December 2007

An interview with Vince Cable - Part 1

A week last Monday, a group of Lib Dem bloggers interviewed our acting leader Vince Cable, as a sequel to our entertaining little chats with the two leadership candidates last month. In the world of 24-hour rolling news, it’s quite inexcusable that it’s taken me ten days write it up. In my defence, I spent half of the time looking after Oxford interview candidates applying to my college, and the other half of the time in bed with the dreaded lurgy. I have thus been beaten to it by:

James Graham
Linda Jack
Millennium Dome, Elephant
Jonathan Calder
Alix Mortimer
and Paul Walter

which means that the only blogger still to report is Alex Wilcock. No doubt he’ll spend the rest of the winter hibernating, appear out of nowhere sometime in March, post the single most incisive and witty piece of political analysis ever seen on a Lib Dem blog since blogs began, and go back to sleep again.

Revenons à nos moutons. We met Vince in one of the committee rooms in the House of Commons. The seating was unfriendly: a large horseshoe bench, ideal for grilling some hapless MP but not great for an informal and friendly interview. We did our best to sit close together at the curvy end, but it still seemed a bit distant, lacking the relaxed atmosphere of our café chat with Chris Huhne.

James Graham kicked off the questioning. He talked about the “conservative consensus” on inheritance tax, and asked if we shouldn’t distance ourselves from the IHT proposals put forward by the other parties, as a way of showing opposition to entrenched privilege.

Vince Cable argued that the Lib Dem position was not to shift the tax burden away from inheritance, it was to make IHT more effective. This would involve raising the threshold for the tax, but at the same time closing the loopholes that allow large estates to bypass the system. Vince said that the majority of people paying the tax were ordinary families with no experience of this area of law, who’d just inherited mum or dad’s nice suburban semi-detached house and been hit with a large bill from the Treasury. The estates that ought to be targeted by the tax, meanwhile, had hired a lawyer and an accountant, and exploited every possible exemption and loophole.

I think this is a reasonable answer. Both Labour and the Tories have played a very dishonest game on inheritance tax, using it as a symbol and a votewinner, when in truth, it affects a small percentage of families, and is in any case a tax on a one-off windfall. We’re far more affected by the basic rate of income tax we pay, and by the rising costs of council tax, areas where Lib Dem policies would save people a lot of money. Why do middle-class voters cream over the Tories’ plans to raise the IHT threshold, when they would be far better off with the Lib Dems’ 4p cut in basic rate income tax?

Paul Walter started off his question by asking about Vince Cable’s apparently warm friendship with Gordon Brown. Vince interrupted him to “set the record straight”: his relationship with Brown is nothing like as close as the press like to imply. Paul pressed on with his question regardless, asking if Vince could give us some insight into Brown’s mental state: is the Prime Minister really “psychologically flawed”?

Vince told us that he isn’t interested in amateur psychiatry, and that Gordon Brown’s mental health isn’t the issue at all. Brown’s premiership, he argued, was probably doomed from the start, picking up the leftovers of the Blair years. The decision not to call an early election was a serious mistake too. But the biggest flaw in Gordon Brown, according to Vince, is his misguided belief in the power of central government to fix things. He loves to sit in his office and come up with grand schemes and brilliant ideas which, when put into practice, become nightmares of bureaucratic inefficiency. Tax credits were an “enlightened” idea but “hopelessly impractical”.

It’s a good answer, but rather diplomatic. I’m not convinced you can neatly classify Brown’s failings as intellectual rather than psychological. Time and time again, hard-working people have been sucked under by the same overcomplicated tax and benefit systems that were meant to help them. To make those mistakes once could be seen as an error of judgement or an intellectual lapse. When those mistakes become the norm, you have to ask what sort of control-freakery and personal insecurity might be at work.

Jonathan Calder asked Vince about his performances at PMQs – what made him so good? Vince told us that he was very used to asking questions in parliament, but as Lib Dem Shadow Chancellor, he was far less likely to be reported in the press. For him, it largely came down to practice, coupled with an aggressive streak: often in the past, we’ve been “too polite”.

Alex Wilcock asked about the role of deputy leader of the party – what could Vince do to raise the profile of the deputy leader’s position, and give the job more of an identity?

Vince told us that the deputy leader didn’t have a major role in the normal run of things. We have a lot of people who talk across a range of issues – the president for example, and the party leader himself. We don’t need another general issues expert. We have enough trouble getting publicity for the full-time leader, and the effort should be concentrated on raising the profile of Nick or Chris, rather than some deputy.

I think this is pretty much spot on. If you stopped British teens at random and quizzed them about politics, I hope most of them would be able to name the leaders of the three biggest parties – but would you expect many of them to know the parties’ deputy leaders? For the sort of geeky people who write and read political blogs, it’s easy to forget that plenty of voters don’t follow British politics as intensely as we do. For the time being, if there’s one high-profile, popular Lib Dem whom most people recognise and talk about, I’ll be happy.

It was my turn next, and I asked Vince the following: your Mr Bean gibe in PMQs was very funny, but didn’t it play to exactly the same politics of image over substance that spelt the political death of your predecessor?

The answer was no – the crucial difference is that the papers were mocking Ming for his age. Vince was mocking and caricaturing Brown for his incompetence. According to Vince, that sort of snappy soundbite is an unfortunate necessity in politics: the key question is, does the soundbite stand for an acceptable underlying message? If a soundbite represents an message of “Ming is a bit old, and therefore useless”, it’s blatant ageism, and unacceptable. If a soundbite stands for “Brown is running the country very badly”, it’s an entirely legitimate thing for an opposition leader to say.

I thought this was a very sound answer to a very mean question. Still, it typifies everything that’s wrong with our political culture. If you ask people on the street, they’ll probably tell you that they want a serious and high-quality national debate, where substance takes precedence over spin, and where the argument is nuanced and detailed, rather than condensed into quick soundbites. But then you try and put a high-quality, nuanced debate on TV, and people vote against it with their remote controls. Why is it that a political party can spend months or years working on some ingenious policy document that gets utterly ignored, whereas Vince can come up with a single clever one-liner and get a week of good coverage? The problem isn’t with the politicians: it’s with us, and what we like to see, hear and read.

Alix Mortimer went next. The Heathrow consultation was likely to be a stitch-up, and the pattern was likely to carry on with, for example, nuclear power stations. How could we break the cycle?

At this point, the Commons division bell started to ring, making an awful racket in the background.

Vince began his answer by saying that the Heathrow situation wasn’t a given – but he told us that the situation had changed since the battle over airport expansion had last been fought. Previously, it was a case of the supposed national interest being pitted against “nimbys in south-west London” – now, it was different, because of heightened concerns about the environment. Airport expansion was no longer clearly in the national interest. Far more people, far outside of London, think of the environment as a top priority, and if the government want to force expansion plans through, they’ll have a much tougher fight against public opinion than the previous time.

The division bell was still going loud and clear, and Vince decided to run off to the lobby and vote. We paused the interview for a few minutes, and tucked into some of Millennium’s doughnuts. This would also seem like a good point to pause in my writeup. I’m already getting close to the word count for a decent-length German lit essay, and I don’t want to try my readers’ concentration spans.

Watch out for part two!

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