Vince Cable 'gagged' over Tory Thatcher jibe

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VINCE Cable has come under fire after a stinging attack on the Liberal Democrats' Tory coalition partners at Westminster was dropped from a speech he made to business leaders last night.

In another sign of growing strains in the coalition, the Business Secretary was scheduled to tell delegates from Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce that only the Lib Dems were preventing the Tories' from "behaving like they did" under Margaret Thatcher's government in the 1980s. However, this and the revelation that he was "glad" the Tories were not in power by themselves were dropped from his final speech.

The move prompted immediate opposition claims that he had been ordered by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to tone down the attack.

A draft of the speech Mr Cable was supposed to deliver last night was issued to the media just before he spoke.

He was scheduled to say: "I remember the negative side of Thatcherism - the poll tax, mass unemployment and the claims that there was no such thing as society." The draft added: "That's why I'm glad the Tories aren't in power by themselves at Westminster. We have stopped the Tories behaving like they did under Thatcher."

Mr Cable's address to the meeting instead talked about "moderating policies" through the coalition agreement. He later stood by the original comments released in his name when confronted by journalists and even read out some of the lines about Thatcherism when these were handed to him by Lib Dem Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael.

Mr Cable said: "I did actually, in the middle of what I was saying, explain the basic strategy for the government which talked about the political and economic aspects, certainly in terms of the politics of it.

"We're part of the government doing things that the Conservative government on its own would not do."

He insisted that he had talked about changes in the tax system as an example of what the party has managed to achieve. But opposition leaders seized on the changes to the planned address.

Labour leader Iain Gray said: "Clearly Nick Clegg tried to stop Vince Cable making this speech because it is an astonishing attack on his coalition partners.

"He is clearly uncomfortable with the government of which he is a senior member, as are former Lib Dem voters, who feel increasingly let down.

"Most people who voted Lib Dem a year ago did so believing they were voting for a progressive party."

SNP education secretary Michael Russell said the episode added to the Lib Dem woes in the election campaign.

"This is a complete shambles by the Lib Dems," Mr Russell said.

"All that Vince Cable has succeeded in doing is portray the Tories as the nasty party, and destroy what remained of Lib Dem credibility in Scotland by continuing to prop them up in government at Westminster."

A spokeswoman for the Liberal Democrats insisted that the only reason for the omission was that Mr Cable is well known for never working from a prepared script. She dismissed the accusation of intervention by Mr Clegg, pointing out that Mr Cable later stood by the comments in the draft and read them out.

The Business Secretary has been at the heart of strains with the Tory coalition and last week hit out at Prime Minister David Cameron for making a "very unwise" speech on immigration.

He told the business leaders that he understood the concerns over the coalition with the Tories in Scotland.

But he added: "The UK had to have stable government, but the arithmetic was such that the coalition formed was the only one viable."

Scottish party leader Tavish Scott has bemoaned the impact of the coalition on the party's Holyrood election campaign in recent days.

But Mr Cable last night played down any rift between the party north and south of the Border. Asked if the coalition will have a damaging impact on Lib Dem prospects here, he said: "I don't think that's the case at all."

He added: "I don't have any problems with my Scottish colleagues. I have excellent relations with Tavish and my Scottish MPs.

"I've been at pains to point out that as Liberal Democrats, we have a major positive influence both in terms of social policies and taxation and the way we're managing the economy."The party north of the Border has a "very strong tradition" of its own, he said.

"They have their own distinct manifesto and its entirely right that they should. This is an election for the Scottish Parliament, it isn't an election for the Westminster parliament. It's entirely right that they should have a distinct approach to the Scottish parliament. That's what the devolution settlement means."

The Lib Dems are accustomed to turbulent poll ratings, Mr Cable said, adding that the party was at 3 per cent in the polls when he was first adopted as a candidate.