Yesterday evening, Millennium Elephant kindly organised* the fourth in a series of Sticky-Buns-and-Awfully-Important-Liberal-Democrats meetings for the bloggers. Answering the questions and eating the doughnuts this time, the unstoppable Dr Vincent Cable.
It has been well rehearsed elsewhere what a thoroughly shiny time of it our Acting Leader is having (so much so that the People’s Republic was moved to express formal congratulations). The mood was naturally upbeat; he is rather enjoying himself. I liked his frankness – if he thought we were talking rubbish, he said so – and the lightly-worn gravity, if such a thing is possible. It struck me that much of his success over the past weeks may be down to this; that once you have a reputation for being thoughtful, steadfast and measuring your words, you can be both as flippant and as blunt as you damn well please and not fall prey to the same accusations of lightweightness that might attend a Cameron, for example.
He ate sticky buns with us for a good forty-five minutes (saving a couple of mad dashes down to the House for divisions) and for once I am going to eschew literary conceit, and go down the boring narrative route of setting out What Happened and When. So feel free to skim-read whole paragraphs that do not interest you without really taking them in, as opposed to normal when YOU MUST READ AND REGISTER EVERY WORD OR RISK THE REPUBLIC’S DISPLEASURE. And we will know, oh yes.
The Joy of Tax
The Quaequam Imperial envoy opened with one of his pet subjects and Vince’s. Given that a cross-party consensus has developed on inheritance tax, shouldn’t we mounting more of a challenge and propose a radical restructure of the tax in line with our essential principle of fairness? Our core liberal beliefs set us against inherited wealth. Why are we colluding in the system by simply raising the threshold? Tax fans will recall that the motion passed at conference was to raise the threshold to £500,000. Aggravated theft fans will recall that this sparked off a bidding war of thresholds in the other two parties in which the Tories carried off the prize (where prize is defined as “double-spread in the Daily Mail”. Which apparently it is.)
Vince’s answer seemed to me to sum up many of the best and worst things about Lib Dem policy-making. He pointed out correctly that the practical upshot, in the current housing market, will be to free a large category of ornery suburban semi-detached family houses from a tax originally meant for “estates” in the old Victorian sense of the word. A moderate threshold raise would have an enormous impact on many perfectly ordinary working (generally southern) urban people who live on earned income rather than asset income, whose most valuable asset by far is their house, and who never dream (if that is the right word) that they might need an accountant until somebody pops their clogs and the IHT assessment falls onto the doormat. Quite true – my parents are a case in point (they do know, of course, but only because of little me).
Moreover, the threshold raise has to be considered alongside the extension of the Potentially Exempt Transfer (IHT-free gifts made in your lifetime) period from seven to 15 years. I thought this a weaker point as people who have a lot of money and a tax accountant generally have no more difficulty in thinking 15 years ahead than they do seven years ahead. Bastards. Although it would lengthen the odds in HMRC’s favour in a rather dark way.
Anyway, Vince’s analysis of who the changed threshold would affect and how is unchallengeable; the threshold has been thoughtfully set to skim clean over the chimney pots of the suburbs but still hit all the more valuable concentrations of assets there and elsewhere; anyone who asks us to prove that our IHT policy does not favour “the rich” will not find us wanting.
But for as long as we hesitate to make that unthinkable assault on inherited wealth, IHT will continue to be one of the few areas of our tax policy from which balls-out liberalism is conspicuously absent. Unfortunately for us, it’s also one of the few areas of tax policy to get widely discussed in the media. It’s just not a good showcase for us. For that reason alone, James’ question requires a broader answer, less nuanced and less grounded in practicalities.
Alas, poor Gordon, I knew him well (actually, not that well)
Paul Walter asked for Vince’s assessment of Gordon Brown’s “fatal flaw”, as an old friend. Interestingly, Vince knocked this one on the head. Friends is putting it strongly, and he hasn’t used that line himself. He described how they had their first contact in Scotland in the 1970s, when he, a Glasgow councillor, was invited to contribute to the precocious Edinburgh activist Brown’s Red Papers pamphlet. All of which was appealingly and poignantly Our Friends in the Northish and reminded me that there is no substitute for actually listening to politicians tell you unaffectedly how things evolved to be as they are - a lost art.
If Gordon has a single failing that can explain his current misfortunes, it is in Vince’s opinion intellectual and not psychological – he is simply far too enamoured of statism, convinced against mounting evidence of the power of Great Big Government to transform lives. Vince also spoke of the difficulties of taking up the leadership of a government that had already run out much of its credit with the public. I think there is a lot of truth in this – the mood music, however quietly, was against Gordon from the beginning.
That Mr Bean touch
Jonathan Calder asked Vince to analyse his roaring success at PMQs – are we just lucky with the topics that have come up, or does the Acting Leader have a secret? Vince diplomatically acknowledged the part played by both. Yes, Northern Rock fell very obviously within his competence, but his performances are also the result of many years’ practice in asking the telling questions, and the need to ramp up the party profile while the leadership contest has been going on.
The way he spoke so lightly of this need makes it sound easy. Every clear programme for action looks easy once it has been achieved. Deserved panegyrics aside, the substance of what he has done bears repeating; he decided what his role as Acting Leader should be, and then went and bloody well performed it. It was quite obvious that he has relished going on the attack, and it made me think again of Olly Grender’s comment, Perhaps all leaders should be encouraged to think they are temporary…
I’m going to play havoc with time here (you can do that when you have your own Republic) and bring forward Jonny Wright’s question because it is germane to the above. In being the star of PMQs and meriting a mention on all outlets from CBBC Newsround to Popbitch, is Vince not just buying in to the same media circus that did for Ming? Vince drew out a distinction between characterising someone’s behaviour in office in a mocking way, and mocking their actual characteristics. Comparing Gordon Brown to Mr Bean is a different matter from a cartoon Ming on a zimmer frame (why is Mr Bean a much worse insult than Stalin, by the way? Seems to me to be something wrong there). As to the broader charge of playing to the media, Vince emphasised that, contrary to how it might appear, they are not the enemy. Like it or not, there is a symbiotic relationship that is not going to go away.
It takes two
To tweak time back into its rightful order, Alex Wilcock’s question concerned the role of the Deputy Leader. Given its increased prominence over the shenanigans of the last two years, isn’t it time the Deputy Leadership became an elected post? And, as a rider to that, was it time for the role to assume a less nebulous outline and become a more visible presence alongside the leader? And furthermore (gosh, what a big question!) would Vince prefer to keep the Shadow Chancellorship or the Deputy Leadership?
Much of this, and the answer, is grounded in detailed insider knowledge of the party’s workings of which I have no wot, and I will leave analysis to others, but briefly Vince said that there were already a number of these oversight roles in the party, dealing with a broad range of policy issues and making themselves available to media comment – it wasn’t clear that there was a need for another. The main purpose of a Deputy Leader (I said I wouldn’t analyse, but here I rather thought he was stating how things were, rather than envisioning how they could be) is to be an insurance policy in the event of, er, something dreadful happening very much like the dreadful things that have in fact happened.
In any case, our main problem is, ever and always, the media profile of the leader – never mind setting up a more publicly defined number two alongside him to worry about. Vince’s view was that it would be a pedantic move, in a party whose internal processes are already far more democratic than the others, to make the Deputy subject to internal election. The specific quality required for the job is the ability to keep the machine ticking over and deal with PMQs at (probably) a time of internal crisis – not to formulate policy and long-term vision. The MPs contingent is far better placed to make a judgement about specifically this quality.
Fight and flight
I asked about the Heathrow expansion, partly because Vince’s constituency is under the flight path and he has been heavily involved in campaigning against it, but also because how this particular fight pans out will be an indicator of things to come. The three-month consultation has just opened and looks like being a stitch-up; Gordon Brown has left us in no doubt as to what he would like the answer to be. In the tired old deadlock between big business and environmentalism, the current government will always favour big business, and in future we may see the same battles being lost over nuclear power. How can we break that deadlock?
Vince reconfigured my identification of deadlock. In past conflicts, the argument was always between NIMBYism and the ill-defined national interest. His view is that the current face-off, between national interest and a powerful environmental lobby, is a new and potentially more meaningful clash. I’m not altogether in agreement that said powerful environmental lobby is new, and there are already any number of cases in which it hasn’t prevailed. But I do take his point that this has the potential to be a rather bigger issue than this- or-that industrial waste permit or road-widening scheme. It will be a national talking point and the course of events within parliament will reflect that. A well-organised group of MPs or failing that a bodyblow from the Lords could scupper the planning legislation changes required. He is also more optimistic privately than he has been officially that the outcome of the consultation paper may tell against the government.
This overview reminded me of how atypical my views and the views of pretty much everyone I know really are. Just because I have seen every local by-pass scrap for the last decade in terms of a titanic struggle between the environment and the economy, doesn’t mean the vast majority of the population and its newspapers of choice have also arrived at that view. Vince’s view was essentially that the Heathrow expansion could see that leap being made. I do hope so.
We didn’t have a specific Northern Rock question, but Linda Jack’s question about what the government could be doing better to tackle personal debt reflected on it – are there systemic issues that could be tackled which would have a knock-on effect on easing the country’s personal indebtedness, hem hem? This is another of Vince’s pet issues and he mentioned a couple of reports which I have mentally put into the “More reading required” attic in my head (it’s getting pretty crowded in there; we’ve had to adopt the Dewey decimal system). The government is now starting to perform as regards debt education, albeit nearly a decade too late. I know from my own experience in the Citizens Advice Bureaux that debt charities have had to carry the can during the intervening period; typically rather than deciding to fund these charities properly and broadening the availability of the specialisms they have developed, Labour are now taking it upon themselves to be the saviour of the terminally spendthrift. Imagine my surprise.
Still, it is better than no action at all. But yes, of course there are systemic problems – one systemic problem in fact. 85% of personal debt relates to mortgages, and the problem of how banks treat mortgages is therefore key to solving the personal debt crisis. The purpose of banks is to act as utilities in the same way that water companies are. It should be a basic requirement that they provide a certain level of return to customers just as water companies undertake to provide water if nothing else (a sane level of customer service, for example). Instead they act, in Vince’s view, like casinos, with the results we’ve seen pan out over the last month.
Richard then asked about the aftermath of the leadership election; in the event that
Nick Clegg the leader gives the Treasury to Chris Huhne someone else, what job would Vince most like to do and why? Of course, we were not expecting him to set out an impassioned bid for any portfolio; nonetheless the manner in which his answer led on flexibility and versatility seemed very natural. He has a lot of experience in a number of different fields and is quite happy to knuckle down to whatever he’s given. Of course, there is a certain logic in his staying at the Treasury because of the credibility he has built up there, but he would be as happy on many other portfolios, or even in a “jungle role” (I presume this is Westminster-speak for roving brief with attack specialism, rather in the manner of a guerrilla fighter; a splendid image – I did wonder about the khaki face paint stripes at the time, but no-one else mentioned it so I didn’t). Good answer. I bet he’s good to work with.
The elephant in the room
No, not that one. The OTHER and CONSIDERABLY LESS FLUFFY elephant in the room was of course the leadership contest. Linda Jack has already performed a neat twostep on this. But the People’s Republic is willing to speculate wildly on the real answer.
When reflecting on his own role in raising the profile of the party, Vince said of the new leader that it was vital he maintain this public momentum by being “fast out of the traps”, by seizing the initiative, being seen to do or say something every day. Paul Walter has unsurprisingly picked up that this is basically a description of Chris [ed: or so I thought - please see his comment below]. Does this mean that Vince is backing Chris, or that he is a Clegghead worrying out loud about Nick’s ability to perform in the same way, much as James Graham has been this morning? My money is that his money is on Chris. As for my own money, that is altogether another matter.
That took us once around the room, and as some of you now appear to be in advanced states of putrefaction (which is not a good attribute in a reader, I find) I will leave off here for now, and return to some of the other points we drew out later. You’ve really been ever so brave.
Thanks again to Richard for organising the session. The idea, I think, can only go from strength to strength. It’s a chance for us bloggers to try out the pet theories we evolve in the lonely halls of cyberspace on the Awfully Important People at the heart of it all, and a chance for the Awfully Important People to connect with the grass roots through a friendly audience which has some reach (in fact quite considerable reach on those days when I make any reference to rude and amusing bodily functions).
* In spirit, that is. After the infamous debacle of the non-submission of Millennium’s leadership nomination papers following intractable difficulties with a fluffy foot and a pen, his daddies are organising everything for him.