The case of the invincible business secretary

WHEN Vince Cable told undercover reporters his departure from government would bring down the coalition, most Westminster insiders thought the famously grumpy business secretary was indulging in a little hyperbole. Few, if any, thought the audacious claim would be tested just a few hours later.

In the event, the Prime Minister agreed with his business secretary. Although David Cameron gave him a public dressing down, and stripped him of key responsibilities, he stopped short of sacking him from the cabinet. A plan to switch Cable with Andrew Mitchell, the Tory international development secretary, was also aborted before it got off the ground; the Liberal Democrats want at least one of their men in a key economic job.

As news of Cable’s predicament surfaced, there was much talk of a swift return to government for David Laws, the former Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury who quit after admitting he used his parliamentary expenses to pay rent to his partner.

There is no doubt that Laws would make an excellent business secretary – in fact that job is likely too small for his talents – but the investigation into his expenses has not yet been published. If the parliamentary standards commissioner were to censure Laws, he could be forced to resign for the second time in a year. Unlike Lord Mandelson, it is highly improbable that he could return for a third time.

Even if Laws were to replace Cable, it would still leave the coalition on shaky ground. Cable is not just any Liberal Democrat, he is one who still commands the support of the party’s left, former SDP members who are increasingly aghast at the direction of the coalition. That can’t be said for Laws, an economic liberal who only joined the Lib Dems in the 1990s because of the Tory party’s views on homosexuality. Most of the other capable Lib Dems are also so-called “Orange Bookers”, a term that denotes a passion for civil liberties combined with a firm belief in the free market.

It is for that reason that Cable can’t be sacked. Without a bleeding heart in the coalition, Lib Dem activists – already defecting en masse – could all but disappear (most of them hold views considerably to the left of the party itself). Nick Clegg, currently at 11 per cent in the opinion polls, can’t afford to let that happen.

Cameron’s decision to keep Cable inside the tent isn’t without its risks. Tory ministers know that they would have been dismissed without a second thought were they to act in a similar way, while Tory backbenchers feel the Lib Dems are wooed while they are ignored. This might buy Cameron some time, but the problems will be waiting for him when he returns from his Christmas break.