U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne supported Business Secretary Vince Cable after the Daily Telegraph newspaper quoted him as giving details of Cabinet infighting.
Cable, 67, the No. 2 Liberal Democrat in Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition, said last night he was “embarrassed” by his comments. Asked by reporters in London today whether the prime minister still had confidence in Cable, Cameron’s spokesman Steve Field replied: “Of course.”
“There is a constant battle going on behind the scenes” between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, Cable was quoted as saying by the Telegraph. The newspaper said the comments, including a remark by Cable that his resignation could bring down the government, were taped by journalists who met the minister “undercover” as constituents.
With Cameron and his Liberal Democrat deputy, Nick Clegg, giving a year-end press conference today in London, Cable’s remarks illustrate the struggles of the first coalition government since World War II. The Cabinet’s principle of collective responsibility requires that ministers support each other’s policies in public. This is difficult for colleagues who fought an election eight months ago attacking each other and will contest another in 2015.
‘I Can Walk Out’
“Can I be very frank with you, and I am not expecting you to quote this outside,” Cable was cited as saying by the Telegraph. “I have a nuclear option, it’s like fighting a war. They know I have nuclear weapons, but I don’t have any conventional weapons. If they push me too far then I can walk out of the government and bring the government down and they know that. So it is a question of how you use that intelligently without getting involved in a war that destroys all of us.”
“I am embarrassed by these comments and I regret them,” Cable said in a statement yesterday after the report. “I have no intention of leaving the government.”
Osborne, who didn’t escape criticism in Cable’s remarks, offered his support in a Parliament appearance today.
“The business secretary is a powerful ally in the government in promoting growth,” he told lawmakers in response to a question from the opposition’s finance spokesman, Alan Johnson, known as the shadow chancellor. “And, frankly, has forgotten more about economics than the shadow chancellor ever knew.”
Sterling weakened 0.3 percent to $1.5471 at 1:15 p.m. in London after Britain’s budget deficit swelled to a record in November.
The episode may help maintain the junior governing partner’s distinctive identity, said Steven Fielding, Director of the Centre for British Politics at Nottingham University.
“What he’s done is say things that everybody really knew he thought,” Fielding said. “He’s ended up giving a justification for the coalition from the Liberal Democrat perspective. It’s short-term embarrassment, but in the long-term, it’s education of the voters.”
Cable, for example, said there was a “big battle going on about the banks,” with “our Conservative friends” resisting his and Clegg’s call for “a very tough approach.” Cable has led calls for banks to show restraint in bonus payments.
He described the execution of a plan to cut welfare payments to parents as “cack-handed” and said “we should be putting a brake on” other projects in areas such as the health service and local government.
“It’s the standard Liberal Democrat private discussion of their position,” said Philip Cowley, the co-author of “The British General Election of 2010.” “They all say privately that as the election approaches, you’ll hear more of this. They know they need to show what they’ve been doing.”
Twenty-one of the 57 Liberal Democrat lawmakers voted Dec. 9 against an increase in college tuition fees, though the party’s ministers supported the policy. Cable, who sponsored the legislation, initially suggested he might abstain.
Among Conservatives, there’s opposition to proposals for a referendum on changing the voting system, which Liberal Democrats made a condition of joining the coalition.