Acting Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable has been having an excellent time of late. Almost every political story to hit the press has carried a prominent Cable quote. His performances at PMQs have been widely praised, and commentators are starting to wonder if he shouldn’t have stood for the top job himself. The Lib Dems seem to have been enjoying a recovery in the polls, with ICM putting us on a healthy 19% last week. To top it all, activists have even set up a Facebook group in appreciation of the soft-spoken economist from Twickenham.
How do you think he does it? What makes him so good?
I posed the question to Nick Clegg last Thursday when he spoke at the Oxford Union (as if we weren’t all sick of the place by now!). In his capacity as home affairs spokesman, Clegg gave an excellent speech about Darfur, heavily criticising the way in which we deal with refugees from Sudan, pointing out the absurdities in our asylum system, and setting out a detailed programme for reforming the process. He took questions afterwards; although it was off-topic, I asked him how he would explain Vince Cable’s success, and how he would try to emulate it if he were elected leader.
Clegg suggested a couple of reasons. Firstly, he praised Cable for being a good communicator who could talk to people in language they could understand. (He then launched him into one of his stock leadership rants about “not sounding like Westminster policy wonks” and the suchlike.)
Secondly, he argued that Cable was in a very unusual situation. As acting leader, he was under far less pressure – the media knew he only had a short while in the job, and didn’t think it worth their effort digging up the dirt on him. And in a more sinister vein, he suggested that the media are deliberately giving him an easy ride, in order to give his eventual successor a hard act to follow. The papers would like nothing more, Clegg argued, than to write a story about either himself or Chris Huhne spectacularly failing to match the achievements of Vince Cable: “the best leader we never had”.
It may sound like appalling cynicism, but it has a ring of truth to it. I can well imagine the press giving Cable huge slices of juicy publicity, waiting for the announcement of the leadership result, and then launching a full-scale character assassination on the poor winner. They could then shout: “those idiotic Lib Dems, they’ve elected another hopeless one when they could have had Vince The Amazing”. It isn’t some anti-Lib Dem conspiracy theory, either: it’s the press’s fondness for making life difficult for politicians in general, and the inevitable Schadenfreude when they screw up.
Mischief-making can’t account for all of Vince’s success, though. He's been very fortunate with the political issues that have come up during his stewardship. With Northern Rock, he found himself on comfortable territory as a respected economic commentator. The scandal of the missing personal data has worked very well for the Lib Dems, who are associated most strongly with the campaign against ID cards. And the decision to boycott the Saudi visit was the sort of bold publicity stunt that only a third party could have pulled off successfully.
But like Nick Clegg, I feel that there is something more than media mischief or blind luck behind Cable’s success. He seems to have a genuine feel for the way in which the media like to present stories. An absolute case in point is the recent story on BBC News about the CDs lost by the Treasury, containing the personal details of 25 million people. The report was essentially about a Tory-led debate in the Commons, where Conserative Shadow Chancellor George Osborne questioned the Government’s story, and asked if the “whole truth” had been told. At the same debate, Vince Cable claimed that one person’s stolen identity could be sold on the black market for £60, valuing the entire missing database at around £1.5bn.
Despite it being an Opposition Day debate called by the Conservatives, the BBC ignored Osborne’s bleatings and went with Cable’s £1.5bn figure as their headline. Effectively, Vince stole a Tory story.
It’s sheer genius. Osborne calling Labour dishonest isn’t a particularly exciting story; he calls them dishonest every other week. But Cable’s figure of £1.5bn was concise, eye-catching and completely new. Vince knew exactly what he was doing, and he carried it off perfectly, stealing a headline from under Osborne’s nose. David Cameron must have been fuming.
Vince’s success so far is hard to analyse; some elements can be replicated by his successor, and some can’t. But it’s clear that talent, coupled with an astute understanding of the media mindset, has played a large role in the good publicity of the past few weeks and the revival in the opinion polls. I sincerely hope that Nick or Chris, whichever is elected, will take a serious look at Vince Cable’s tenure in Cowley Street, and draw the right lessons.