Partnership and Politics

Vince Cable

In Vince Cable's new memoir, written with his partner Rachel Smith, he gives a reappraisal of his time in government.
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As we are being reminded by the public enquiry into the pandemic, that period in recent history was a nightmare for many. But for some of us lockdown provided the time and peace to write. In this case the subject is the decade beginning 2010: a period which included the aftermath of the financial crisis, the rise to – shared – power of the Lib Dems  in the Coalition government and their subsequent collapse, the Brexit Referendum and the polarisation of left and right in the leadership of Labour party by Jeremy Corbyn and the Conservatives by Boris Johnson that ensued with the loss of that referendum. Partnership and Politics tries to make sense of it all through a memoir.

The Coalition Cabinet gather for the Queen’s visit in 2012

Political memoirs can occasionally be brilliant and insightful (Chris Mullin, Alan Johnson, Alan Clark). More usually they are eminently forgettable, turgid essays of self-justification. Occasionally there is something new: politics through the life of a partner as in Sasha Squire’s tale of gossip and scandal. Partnership and Politics also tries to be original: in this case a weaving together of my narrative as a player in the political drama with the diaries of Rachel, my wife, with her distinctive perspective on politics and her own life around family, farming and friends.

We are trying to make a serious point that politicians do not operate in a hermetically sealed political vacuum. They (usually) have a life: family, personal relationships and a hinterland of pursuits. Good partnerships in particular help to make better politicians. One reason is that serious political careers are punishing, exhausting, unhealthy and obsessional; having support but also a different perspective may be a lifeline to sanity.

The initial context of the book is Coalition: the Lib Dems, and my, role in it.  The adage that history is written by the winners applies here with force.  The Lib Dems have been airbrushed out of history, their substantial achievements in Coalition forgotten or expropriated: substantially lifting the income tax threshold; the pupil premium; the pension ‘triple lock’; same sex marriage; stopping the trashing of workers’ and environmental protections; developing an industrial strategy with the revival of apprenticeships, reversing decline in the car and aerospace industries, establishing the British Business Bank and the Green Investment Bank radical bank reform including ‘ringfencing’ of banks’ high risk investment arms (‘casinos’). Then there were the failed internal battles:  for example for a form of proportional representation and reform of the House of Lords; and against the Conservatives’ obsession with a net immigration target, even deeper cuts in benefits, the axing of public investment and housing policies, like Help to Buy, which aggravated unaffordability.

Vince & Rachel

Even the political disasters of the Lib Dems, like increased tuition fees, proved to be good for the country: universities were properly funded; the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds boomed; the progressive taxation of graduates is now credited by the Institute of Fiscal Studies with being the most important policy in recent years to reduce income inequality.

The end of the Coalition and the near-wipe-out of LibDem MPs in 2015, including me, was the end of a period of stable and competent government. Crucially it opened the way to the Brexit referendum and then the endless debates in parliament about the Brexit negotiations and what Brexit meant. One unexpected side effect of the hard Brexit implemented by the Tories was that it helped to catapult me back into parliament, to party leadership and to a revival of the party’s fortunes as the ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ party. Sadly, for the country the Peoples’ Vote campaign was in vain. Under my successor the Lib Dem revival wilted again in a General Election which was reduced to whether Brexit or Corbyn was the lesser evil.

And that was the time to exit parliament, to start a new career, writing, and to discover the attraction of observing politics from the outside rather than the inside. For Rachel it has meant less anxiety – politics is not a restful spectator sport – and the joint enterprise of our memoir, more time together – at first enforced by the pandemic – but now including more leisurely travel. For both of us, we’ve been able to spend more quality time with the extended family before we morph from ‘oldies’ to ancestors.

Vince Cable served as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in the Coalition Goverment from 2010 to 2015. He is the co-author with Rachel Smith of Partnership & Politics in a Divided Decade published by The Real Press.