Daily Archives: 4 December 2007

Vince Cable talks to Quaequam Blog!

Once again, I was delighted to be invited to be invited to take part in another of Millennium’s interviews with party figures. At first we interviewed the two leadership candidates, but it seemed like a good idea to get an interview in with Vince Cable while he was serving as acting leader. He graciously agreed to do this and so the inteview took place at teatime on Monday. But then you know all this because you’ve presumably read all the other versions of the interview already. Apologies for my lateness, I spent the rest of the evening out with friends and have only just had a chance to sit down and do the interview justice.

So, what to make of the “greatest leader we’ll never have” (TM all newspapers)? Well, when Vince first arrived in Committee Room 19 he came across as quite diffident and uncomfortable. Right from the start it was apparent this was not going to be like the interviews we’d had with Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg.

Millennium allowed me to start off and, a little unprepared, I proceeded to spend five minutes waffling on about what should have been a very simple question: given the party’s opposition to the “Conservative consensus” and the Liberal tradition’s opposition to inherited wealth, how did Vince justify our presently uncosted policy to increase the IHT threshold up to £500,000 (for more on this by me, see Comment is Free)?

Vince’s short answer was that our policy is to crack down on IHT, and that the real issue is that the way IHT has been set up means that the wealthy find it very easy to get around it and that it is the comparatively less well off that end up paying it. The Lib Dem policy to extend the so-called “seven year rule” so that gifts would only be exempted if they were made fifteen years before the individual’s death would make it harder to avoid.

Was I convinced by this? I’m afraid not, for three reasons. First of all, the policy has never been sold as “toughen up IHT”, but rather “raise the starting threshold” (pdf). The matter of the threshold wasn’t dealt with at all, despite it being the basis of my question. But finally, I have serious doubts about the practicalities of extending the gift rule. Both my mother and my partner’s family have recently gone through probate. It takes a long time and isn’t a walk in the park. If the concern is for middle-class families who find themselves caught out by the system, I have real concerns that these are precisely the sort of people who will end up getting screwed. Meanwhile, it may catch out the super-rich at the margins, but only those who die in skiing accidents as opposed to the ones who die in their beds. In short, for people already well versed in avoiding the tax, it will be a mild annoyance. For the rest of us, it will be a serious hassle. I’m still entirely unconvinced this is a more practical policy than an accessions tax, I’m afraid.

My second question was about multiculturalism, something which Vince has written two Demos pamphlets on the subject. I made the mistake of poorly phrasing my question, asking how we “calm down” the current debate on conflicting identities in the UK, something which he strongly rejected we should seek to do. Instead, he said, we should try to create a society where such debate can flourish, knowing that conflict will arise from time to time. He singled out Evan Harris for taking part in the Oxford Union debate with David Irving last week. On tackling discrimination there were no simple, coin-in-the-slot answers, he argued, pointing out that the experience of different ethnic communities – not least of all the white working classes who deserve the same attention as any other group.

This is all impeccably liberal stuff, and despite my rants about the Oxford Union last week I’m quite happy that Evan was there to argue against Irving given that the meeting was going to go ahead anyway (I still question the Union and its rather selective approach to free speech however) – I certainly don’t condone the rather strong arm tactics of the protesters who attempted to shut down the debate by force. But I don’t think it moved us forward particularly. What I was hoping for was a pocket summary and update of his latest paper on the subject Multiple Identities – a pamphlet which I enjoyed even if I didn’t agree with all of it. I got the sense this question rather irritated him however, which wasn’t my intention at all.

Vince warmed rather more to my final question however, on how he rated George Osborne. His answer was, basically, that Osborne is a smart political operator but an economic lightweight. He argued that Osborne and Cameron are inseparable and that he would stand or fall with his leader.

In particular, he took issue with the Conservatives’ “opportunistic” stance on Capital Gains Stance, pointing out that the Tories opposed taper relief when it was first introduced by George Brown. This is a good point, and one which we perhaps ought to drive home more strongly.

Overall, Vince gave us all fairly straightforward answers and by the end had warmed up immensely. I particularly appreciated his responses to Paul’s question about Gordon Brown’s “psychological flaws” (he doesn’t have them, but has deep intellectual flaws) and his satisfactory answer to Jonny’s question about whether the “Mr Bean” line was doing the same to Brown as we deplore was done to Ming (answer: Ming was criticised for his appearance while Cable was criticising Brown for his ineptitude). He was quite insightful, and surprisingly upbeat in response to Alix’s question about the Heathrow expansion, arguing that it wasn’t a done deal, that the fact that the environment has gone up the political agenda makes it much harder for the government compared with the last Heathrow expansion and that could only happen if the government were to get its way over planning reform (which is being strongly opposed in the Lords).

The best leader we’ll never have? Impossible to tell. If he had been a candidate I suspect we would have had a very different interview, just as he would have had a very different past month. It is clear that he is a major talent however and one that the new leader – whoever he is – should ensure remains at the centre of our front bench team.

See also: Liberal England, Liberal Burblings, Lindyloo’s Muze, The People’s Republic of Mortimer, Millennium Elephant (plus Love and Liberty and Hug a Hoodie when they get around to typing their versions up).

Party Funding: easy on the hubris folks!

For the past four years, I’ve spent much of my job working on party funding related issues. This has given me a rather apolitical outlook when it comes to funding scandals.

“Abrahamsgate” and “Wendygate” are no exceptions. Don’t get me wrong; the decision of Peter Watt, apparently his predeccessors and almost certainly a lot of others within the party to break the law in covering up the identity of a major party donor is a real scandal. With the Wendy Alexander debacle, a similar dismissive attitude about the law seems to have been in place. But no party has clean hands, least of all the Conservatives who continue to use unincorporated associations to legally protect the anonymity of their donors. It may be legal, but they are doing exactly the same thing on a daily basis, only less hamfistedly.

It is really hard to see how some of the smaller donations which are getting journalists so excited at the moment have that much significance. £950 here or £2,000 there is not as much of an issue as the fact that, for example, the £306,000 in donations that were reported late by the main parties in the last quarter alone. The fact is, none of the main party’s systems are that good and they could all do with being improved (admittedly, Labour’s seems to be in a bigger mess than either the Tories or Lib Dems).

But if the central party machine’s systems are not that perfect, what about – for example – the campaign teams of leadership candidates? Most of the scandals that are hitting the headlines at the moment concern the Labour Deputy Leadership and the Scottish Leadership contests (or non-contest in the latter case). I hope that Team Clegg and Team Huhne are making extra sure that all their donations are above board and that they are registering every single one of them; it could so easily happen to us.

Clegg and Huhne on Today: the verdict

I’ve just been listening to Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne’s head-to-head on the Today Programme. For a Cleggite, it made for pretty uncomfortable listening.

While I think Clegg was significantly better than Huhne at the hustings last week, the broadcast media is the real battleground in the struggle to win the hearts and minds of the public. And once again, Clegg came off as dramatically weaker than Huhne.

The difference was obvious. Huhne trotted off a series of clear and concise soundbites while Clegg waffled. It isn’t as if this problem hasn’t been remarked upon before; why hasn’t Clegg sorted it out?

And the problem goes a little deeper. Huhne has spent the last week at the centre of the party funding scandal for doing little more than opportunistically reporting the whole Abrahamsgate affair to the police. He even used those sharp elbows of his to get in on the BBC’s report on Vince Cable’s desire to appear on Strictly Come Dancing. Clegg meanwhile has only popped up to declare that he is expecting to win – a process story.

My entirely anecdotal evidence suggests that most over-40s I know seem to be coming out for Huhne. Given the over-representation of young people contributing to it, I am doubtful that YouGov’s poll over the weekend should have given Clegg quite as strong a position as it should have. Either way, he isn’t giving any late voters any strong reasons to vote for him.

Assuming he does get elected however, I do hope he will spend the Christmas break working out where he went wrong over the campaign and getting some serious media training.