Opinion

Vince Cable: One of the sad casualties of this general election

6 min read

08 May 2015

Former editor

Contained amongst the high-profile bombshells that reverberated throughout the night as votes were counted and results announced was Vince Cable's downfall – the long-serving Liberal Democrat MP departed business secretary.

While the announcements that Ed Balls, Danny Alexander, Ed Davey, Douglas Alexander (and even George Galloway) failed to win their respective seats, the bigger news for business leaders up and down the country came in the form of Cable departing frontline politics.

When the coalition came into power in 2010, Cable, along with Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and David Laws, was a Liberal Democrat who secured a ranking position within the new government. Leveraging his experience in the business, economic and foreign policy landscape, he took up the mantle as the man in charge at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

History has a long track record of politicians being accused of being out of touch with reality, and never has this been truer than for the business space. Those at the helm of companies throughout the UK often have a hard time accepting policy suggestions or change from people who have never been at the coal face and experienced what it is really like to run a business.

And while Cable was by no means faultless during his five years as business secretary, I got the feeling that the captains of enterprise he was essentially serving found him a little easier to relate to than previous holders of the position.

His biggest piece of work was in establishing the British Business Bank, an organisation that brings all of the government’s business finance initiatives under one roof. From StartUp Loans, through the Angel CoFund and Enterprise Capital Funds, to ENABLE Guarantees, its commercial arm invests alongside the private sector to “increase the level and choice of finance options” for UK businesses.

The creation of the British Business Bank was in part an effort to create a more joined-up approach after the relative failure of initiatives such as Project Merlin and the Regional Growth Fund. Headed up by Keith Morgan, it has taken a keen interest in the alternative finance landscape as well.

Cable has also put his weight behind gender diversity, particularly at board level. Putting pressure on the FTSE constituent to prove each are taking a progressive approach, it has brought about a degree of change.

He’s been a champion of exporting, bringing out the establishment of 40 new overseas Chambers of Commerce to provide more on-the-ground assistance to first-time exporters. The coalition government set itself some ambitious targets on the export front, and Cable’s initiatives were going the right way about achieving those.

The business secretary was also the man transfixed on establishing a UK version of the German heavyweight Mittelstands. He saw a solid and reliable mid-market as a key ally to the exciting startup community that has grown during the last period of government.

In a Guardian feature published in April, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas came out with a great way of describing Cable. “My overriding feeling about Vince is that he’s so reasonable and so plausible that he could make eating babies sound an entirely rational thing to do.”

Indeed, in my rather intimate last meeting with Cable back in October 2013, I found him very cordial and generally interested in what I and the other journalistic guests he’d invited into his London office were up to and had to say. We sipped tea while discussing the British Business Bank, exporting and HMRC’s approach to “welcoming” new entrepreneurs.

Without the need for dictaphones, video cameras or aggressive questions, it was simply a chance for us to hear form the horse’s mouth and put the concerns of readers to the man in charge.

There’s part of me that has always felt slightly sorry for Cable. As a man now in his 70’s, it seemed a little bit ridiculous the amount of speaking engagements and events he was signed up for. By ceding this kind of public exposure to his deputy Matthew Hancock, he could have put his business and economics mind to better use back at the office.

It seems strange that, considering the vast majority of business leaders I have spoken to seemed fairly content with the government of the last five years, it should be the man at the helm of that agenda who fails to win back his seat.

I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Cable, but it will be interesting to see who steps into his shoes. The next business secretary will need to be someone who is not afraid to make the big decisions on the business stage. The logical bet would be Hancock, but he may well have his heart set on a higher position.

For now, I’d like to say thanks Vince – you’ve made this an interesting space to cover during the last five years.