Vince Cable lampoons Tory ‘headbangers and backwoodsmen’

VINCE Cable has branded his Tory coalition partners “headbangers” and “backwoodsmen”, as the rift between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives appeared to widen.

In a bullish address to his party’s conference – privately described by some activists as “the alternative leader’s speech” – the Business Secretary seemed to aim to position himself as the successor to Nick Clegg.

Changing leader would push Lib Dem poll ratings to their highest point since the honeymoon period after the formation of the coalition in 2010, according to an ICM poll last night. It suggested the Lib Dems would gain five points, going from 14 to 19 per cent, if Mr Cable was leader at an election now. It also put Labour ten points ahead of the Conservatives – its strongest lead since Iain Duncan Smith was Tory leader.

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In a speech that drew enthusiastic applause, Mr Cable attacked “backwoodsmen” in the Tory ranks who opposed a mansion tax, ridiculed calls from “headbangers” for a “hire-and-fire culture” and described reports of a split within the Conservative Party as “enticing”.

He told activists he did not believe any party would win the 2015 election outright and insisted any future government “must have Liberal Democrats at its heart”.

Mr Cable, a former Glasgow Labour councillor, also defended his dialogue with Labour leader Ed Miliband, joking about them regularly exchanging texts by pretending to receive a message.

Mr Cable said: “I don’t believe actually that the British people will want to entrust their future to any one party next time. And if Britain wants sustainable growth, competence with compassion, fairness with freedom and more equality, not ever greater division, then that government must have Liberal Democrats at its heart.”

Although he attacked “rootless” New Labour and said the party had “just begun its long journey back”, Mr Cable reserved his most colourful language for the Lib Dems’ coalition partners.

Expressing frustration at the lack of progress on his party’s “core” policy of a mansion tax, he said: “I know it horrifies the Tory backwoodsmen, but it is popular and right.”

He also attacked those who called for a major relaxation of employment laws, recommended by the Beecroft report commissioned by Downing Street.

Mr Cable said: “We have seen off the headbangers who want a hire-and-fire culture and seem to find sacking people an aphrodisiac: totally irrelevant in a country with flexible labour markets which have created over a million private sector jobs in the last two years.

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“Instead, we have concentrated on practical tribunal reform and supported progressive firms who want worker participation and share ownership.”

In one passage of his speech, he mocked the rivalry between Prime Minister David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson, and made fun of Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell, who is under fire for allegedly describing a police officer defending Downing Street as a “pleb”.

Mr Cable said: “Most of our MPs will face Conservatives at the next general election. They face the enticing prospect of a Tory split. Now I don’t know what Boris and Dave got up to in Eton. Perhaps a pillow fight got out of control in the dormitories. I have been told, however, that jokes about social class are not good for the unity of the coalition. But as a mere pleb, I couldn’t resist it.”

He also confirmed plans for a business bank capitalised with £1 billion of taxpayers’ money, stressed a commitment to house building and pledged to crack down on “shady” tax havens.

Later, during a question and answer session with Chief Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander, the author of the coalition agreement, delegates stressed they wanted clear differences between the two parties.

One asked: “Is there any way you can publicise the battles you are having with Conservative ministers in the government?”

Another said: “We need to do more to convince the electorate we are not the same as the Conservatives.”

Mr Alexander replied: “It takes time to demonstrate that we are different and have achieved things in government.”

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But he also insisted the party should be proud of achieving 75 per cent of its manifesto in the coalition agreement and raising the income tax threshold, as well as bringing in initiatives such as the pupil premium in England.

In a speech today, Mr Alexander will call on the party to hold firm with the coalition and its economic policy.

He will say: “We have rebuilt the confidence in this nation’s ability to pay its way in the world – we can now put that credibility to work for the British people. There could not be a worse time to argue that we should abandon our plan. We won’t do it. It is the foundation for everything else. It is the foundation for jobs and prosperity in the future.”