Sketch: Cable in the lions’ den

Business leaders always sniff trouble when a politician tells them his arguments are a “defence of capitalism”. Vince Cable was no exception.

By Alex Stevenson

If, somehow, you had never seen the business secretary before, you might have been surprised. He looked as if he could have stepped from the ranks of the business leaders himself. And of course it is true that on his “long and winding road” through politics, business, international organisations and academia, Dr Cable has indeed found himself earning a buck or two in the private sector.

This experience, wherever he found himself, was not wasted. Cable created a “powerful, consistent thread” with his current outlook by citing his defence of Adam Smith to Scottish students, or his time in the Labour government of the 1970s defeating protectionists. The business secretary has done so many different jobs, from so many different perspectives, that it is easy for a man of his impressive experience to dig up examples backing his case.

He did not waste much time outlining his liberal economics, however, for there was still the main anti-banker event to come. Cable had a surprise up his sleeve. “Businesses… keep telling me that I’m perhaps not bashing them enough!” he said zealously. He seemed a scintilla away from smacking his hands together in glee. Instead he shied away from “a sterile public exchange of insults”, trying hard not to look like this was precisely what he would like to do. On previous occasions, as in his conference speech to the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool, he has succumbed to the temptation. Today he was strong. Instead he consoled himself by launching a review of corporate governance and short-termism, bashing the businesses rather than the bankers. That should make him feel better.

Cable sent mixed messages on the coalition. He got in a dig at his Tory partners by pointing out that before the election they had been “busy developing policies about ‘sharing the proceeds of growth”. What fools! But he went out of his way to address “leadership more broadly” and fears by some that coalitions might not be good for decisive action. “My response to this: cobblers!” he yelped. “As wrong as you can get.”

When he wants to be – as in his infamous Stalin/Mr Bean jibe against Gordon Brown – Cable can be withering. “For those who say that by crimping the banks’ style, by stopping them indulging in short-term speculation, that we are somehow damaging their shareholders’ interests, I want to know: how did short-termism work out for you?” he asked, scratching his nose. “A glance at the share price graphs around 2008 suggests ‘not very well’.”

It’s a compelling argument – but business leaders will be dismayed at the idea that the Liberal Democrats in government will use their power to clamp down on their activities. “Perhaps it is time to return to Earth,” Cable told the assembled bosses. He wants managers to strengthen their relationship with shareholders. “It is, after all, their money!” Cable pleaded. The room held its breath. Time for some urgent lobbying, perhaps.