Vince’s dance of death

Well, Vince Cable may technically still be Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, but there’s no doubt what we’ve seen today is the first stage in what promises to be the most grisly, protracted and unedifying resignation in British politics since Clare Short “wrestled with her conscience” over the Iraq invasion.

Many observers have already noted the irony of Jeremy Hunt – scourge of the BBC and advocate for “cross-media ownership” – being appointed to exercise the “quasi-judicial impartiality” required in deciding whether to allow Murdoch to take 100% ownership of BSkyB. Gosh, I wonder what decision he’ll reach, eh, kids?

But there is a difference between Hunt’s bias and that of Cable. Yes, Hunt comes to this decision with a completely biased and politically-loaded perspective, one which makes it almost inevitable he will allow Murdoch to take over BSkyB. Just as it was inevitable that he would squeeze (and will continue to squeeze) the BBC – ideally, one suspects, into non-existence.

But the point is that these are matters of political judgment and political opinion – in other words, precisely why we have elected ministers making these decisions, however much of a “quasi-judicial” element there may also be. Any such decision is a mixture of objective assessment and subjective discretion. That discretion is often very wide.

However much it sticks in our throat to see Murdoch win yet another battle, if Hunt can show that the BSkyB takeover meets the appropriate objective criteria, it is then legitimate for him to exercise his discretion as a minister according to the political convictions on which he was elected.

What it’s not legitimate for a minister to do is to start (or give the impression of starting) a personal vendetta against a particular individual or organisation. That’s why Jeremy Hunt won’t openly put the boot into the BBC per se, but will instead call for “financial responsibility” (i.e. cutting the licence fee) and “freeing up the market” (i.e. giving BSkyB free rein). And that’s why Cable was stupid and vain for expressing his agenda in personal terms, and has set back the anti-Murdoch cause irrevocably by doing so.

What Cable should have said – and what he would no doubt say he meant by what he did say – was that he had declared war on vested interests that accumulate power in a way that threatens fair competition and consumer rights within the broadcasting and media markets. Then, upon exercising his discretion, he may well – who knows? 😉 – have determined that Rupert Murdoch’s empire represented just such a vested interest whose power needed to be restricted.

Still, easy for me to say that. I don’t have two pretty Telegraph journalists sweet-talking me into saying something stupid to impress them, do I…?

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5 thoughts on “Vince’s dance of death”

  1. Time’s running out for Lib Dem ministers, that’s for sure. If David Laws gets any sort of cleared record from his expenses inquiry, the next Lib Dem to wobble will almost certainly find themselves out on their ear…

    1. I’ve seen it suggested that the reason Cable “survived” this time is because Clegg and Cameron are waiting for Laws’s rehabilitation. Laws to be at BIS by the summer: you read it here eleventh…

      That said, I’m a little surprised that they passed up the opportunity to rob Cable of the “honourable resignation” which is clearly heading our way at some point. But perhaps they prefer this slow humiliation and erosion of his credibility.

      It’s also clear that Clegg now identifies himself more with Cameron than with his own party. His journey towards the Dark Side is almost complete. Again, I’m far from the first/only person to say this, but I’ve been convinced for some time that the Lib Dems are going to split before the next election, with Clegg, Laws and Alexander (at least) forming a nominally-independent “Liberal Conservative” faction and being parachuted into safe Tory seats.

  2. with Clegg, Laws and Alexander (at least)

    If that’s the story you’re telling, Browne would be there as well, without a doubt. That’s just off the top of my head: there would certainly be more. Kramer, potentially, although out of Parliament she’s less of a catch.

    I agree with that story in that long-term, the Lib Dems are ideologically unstable and likely to split. Political conditions would need to be right, and a part of that is almost certainly the electoral viability of the partiscules, which entails some fairly hefty electoral reform. I would disagree with it, though, in that the Lib Dem right is not naturally suited to the behemoth that is the Tory party. The real danger is that they find they prefer sharing a party with soggy socialists (to use Laws’ delightful phrase) rather than Thatcherites.

    It may be no surprise that I would prefer a Tory split (unlikely as that is) with liberals from both Tories and Lib Dems forming a more vertebrate party of liberalism!

    1. One key point is that Cameron is quite keen to draw the Lib Dem right closer, as he sees it as a means to reconstruct the old “Tory wets” axis as a counterbalance to the Tory right. His instincts are to find a centre way between two options, so he needs someone on his left as well as someone on his right!

      I would have added Ed Davey to my list, having seen him on BBCQT recently where he seemed to have gone completely native. But then those pretty Telegraph journos knocked on his door, too, and he turned out still to have a beating human heart somewhere within that crypto-Tory frame……

      As for electoral viability: I think the Lib Dems’ electoral viability is disappearing down the toilet so fast that the calculations will begin to change very rapidly. Lib Dems in LD/Labour marginals – for whom “It was nothing to do with me! It was those bastards! Over there (now)!” may be their only feasible line of defence come the next election – will be making very different calculations from those in LD/Tory seats, or who (like Clegg) have a reasonable expectation of being parachuted somewhere friendly if they throw their lot in more fully with the Tories.

      1. Yes, I did hear a rather good one about the Cabinet composition recently: did you know there are six Lib Dems around the Cabinet table? Everyone thought they were getting five, but Ken Clarke was a freebie.

        But to be serious, this is one of those things where I think the reporting is missing the picture slightly, by talking about a monolithic ‘Tory right’. Cameron doesn’t need to be bothered about the Thatcherites so much as the Tory Taliban. The John Redwoods of this world (see also Peter Lilley’s comments recently) may be quite dry and economics-obsessed, but they are basically supportive of the government’s overall agenda, especially since the Thatcherite wing has extended to encompass people with more socially liberal views.

        On the other hand, the Tory fundamentalist, hanger-and-flogger lot, like Davies and Davies (but not Davis!), must be in a real high dudgeon since they’ll support practically none of the government’s programme. They couldn’t care less about economics, have complete disdain for public sector reform, and think civil liberties are for wimps.

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