Like Norman Tebbit, when Vince Cable enters a room a gothic gloom descends, and when he looks at his audience there is a distinct air of an undertaker measuring up potential clients. And both have a smile like a brass plate on a coffin.
But that is where the similarity ends. Vince Cable is no Norman Tebbit.
The recent history of tackling industrial relations in Britain has been fraught with fear, panic and disaster.
Ted Heath tried to address the inherent problems, but produced an unwieldy, broadly unworkable and very unpopular, Industrial Relations Act. It helped lose him the election.
Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife was scuppered by the unions and a terrified Jim Callaghan. It lost him an election too. If Castle had succeeded there would have been no Winter of Discontent. And Margaret Thatcher may never have become Prime Minister.
Now there’s a thought.
The success of Thatcher’s employment laws was by the appointment of the uber wet, Jim Prior, to woo the Unions. He was a success. It is always odd that the right spend their lives castigating the wets, despite the fact that Chris Patten wrote every winning Thatcher manifesto and Jim prior restored some degree of harmony with the unions. But never let history get in the way of a myth.
The problems that Cable faces are very different to those faced by Callaghan, Heath and Thatcher. The unions are not out of control. They no longer censor newspaper content. Nobody seriously believes that they run the country. We have the lowest level of strikes on record.
But there is a growing perception that certain unions, Bob Crowe’s RMT for example, can cause very serious disruption and should be controlled. And Len McLusky of UNITE hasn’t even flexed his Marxist muscles yet.
It is worth quoting exactly what Cable has said. “there is currently no reason to reform the law….cool heads required all round….case for changing strike law is not compelling... should the position change and should strikes impose serious damage to our economic an social fabric the pressure for us to act would ratchet up”.
Forgive me, but these seem the words of sense and reason. The right, in the strange form of Boris Johnson, who will say anything and do anything to win the Mayoral election, will no doubt describe all this as mealy mouthed inaction, but probably in latin. And the usual carpet biters will demand action. There will be an inevitable ConservativeHome poll amongst grass roots telling us that 90% of them want tough measures now. And senior members of the 1922 Committee will let it slip that their members are unhappy. Blimey, what is the matter with these bozos? Can’t we just put them on Prozac?
We may even have a leaked letter from Liam Fox.
The union anger has only just started. It will be become very shrill. The GMB’s Paul Kenny has ludicrously described Cable’s words as an insult to working people. Actually, it’s not. Working people want to remain as such and not be manipulated into positions where their livelihoods are at greater risk by nonsensical strikes whose only effect with be to lose them hard earned wages.
But there is a delightful twist in all of this. What on earth is Ed Miliband going to say about it all? Let me be balanced. There is no overt evidence that he is yet in the pockets of the unions. His problem is that as his personal election was and his party is bankrolled by them. The burden of proof is for him to prove that he is a free sprit.
I suspect that the way he will get round it is to say that this good cop bad cop tactics. That the traitor Cable is just a human shield for the doctrinal hard right wingers Osborne and Cameron. That there is a secret agenda.
Actually there isn’t. But don’t tell anyone.