Nick Clegg tries to ignore Vince Cable split as Lib Dems sink fast
Cable could still do a deal with Labour at the next election - but 'Tory' Clegg would find it difficult now
AS SALVAGE experts try to lift the Costa Concordia off the rocks, so Nick Clegg sought to raise his own leadership this morning by swearing black was white and that his split with Business Secretary Vince Cable was no more than a "storm in a teacup".
On Radio 4's Today programme, Evan Davis asked Clegg about the split with Cable. "You are somewhat over-egging it," said Clegg. "It's a storm in a tea-cup."
What about Cable's refusal to show up for the economic debate at the party conference in Glasgow this morning? Clegg shrugged it off: "I don't run a boot camp. I don't tell people when to turn up…"
Minutes before Clegg went on air, Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, had revealed the result a private poll of Lib Dems MPs taken at a pre-conference meeting in Milton Keynes. Cable was seeking a change of economic direction from the coalition austerity plan promoted by Chancellor George Osborne - but he was defeated 55-2, claimed Robinson.
Cable may have lost the battle among the MPs, but he has the support of Lib Dem activists who are due to argue at this morning's economy debate for a change of direction.
But Cable is in such a huff that he's said he won't attend the debate. Clegg, unusually, will wind it up himself, even though he's got a Q & A session in the afternoon, plus his leadership speech to work on for Wednesday.
The reason the split is important is that Cable's position chimes closely with what Labour's Ed Miliband and Ed Balls will be saying about the economy at their party conference next week: economic recovery could still falter and it's being put at risk by a housing price bubble fuelled by the Treasury's Help to Buy scheme.
The bottom line is that Cable could do a deal with Labour if there's a hung Parliament at the next election and, on this showing, Clegg couldn't.
Clegg has made some significant gains in this conference. It has (surprisingly) voted in favour of limited use of nuclear power, and some gas extraction by fracking to fight off the day when the lights go off in Britain because we've run out of energy. It's likely that Clegg will beat off an attempt by the Lib Dem activists to commit the party to raising the top rate of tax back up to 50p in the £.
But the activists are afraid that without a change of leader (Cable would be the favourite) they are sleepwalking to disaster.
Naomi Smith, a leader of the Social Liberal Forum which is leading the calls for a change of economic strategy, said on BBC's Westminster Hour: "We are facing … appalling European election results (May 2014), bad local election results for the fourth year on the trot. If that is what we are facing, we need a change of direction."
Barry Sheerman, the Labour MP for Huddersfield, tweeted after Clegg's interview: "Clear after Nick Clegg @ BBC Today at next election choice between Labour or three Tory parties led by Cameron Clegg or Farage". It's a view shared by more and more Lib Dems who privately accuse Clegg of being a Tory.
Storms ahead? Captain Clegg couldn't see it. "Activists are not another breed… I really admire our activists. It's great that people care about politics," he said.
Naomi Smith also accused Clegg's spin doctors of misrepresenting the activists as the "left" of the Lib Dems. "It's what's left of the party," she snorted.
On that, Clegg was frank. He admitted that the total membership of the party has gone down by two-thirds to around 40,000 - the sort of number who might turn up a Premier League football match. Holed below the waterline, sinking fast, Captain Clegg may have hit the rocks, but he's staying on the bridge to the bitter end. ·