Look! That is me hugging The Right Honourable Dr Vincent Cable MP! Are you impressed? ARE YOU IMPRESSED?!
Today I went to a meeting of Richmond & Twickenham Liberal Democrats. It was technically a meeting of the Executive but all members and supporters were invited to attend so that Vince Cable could answer our questions about the Coalition. When I got there, the only person I actually knew was Susan Kramer, until very recently our MP. She waved hello to me :) Seems that hardly anyone from Kingston bothered to go, which was their loss because Vince is awesome. You know how awesome he is on TV, the radio or in newspaper interviews? Well, he's about 500 x more awesome in person!
The meeting was absolutely full - over 200 people. The room was packed with people standing at the back. Vince himself was late because he was talking to Nick about something (oooh!) but it was okay because there was other business before his speech and question & answer session. Susan spoke about her campaign and how she's not desperately disappointed to have lost the election because she had five wonderful years as MP, and as she lives in this area, she intends to stick around in politics campaigning on local issues. I am really pleased that we have not lost her completely, and that she will be there sticking metaphorical forks into Gitface, because she'll do a better job of it than I would.
By the way, I didn't record any of this because I didn't have permission to do so, but Vince is sufficiently good a speaker that I can remember a lot of what he said verbatim. The only problem is with numbers, because things like 18 and 80 sound almost identical. So I've written what I heard, but if any of the numbers are on crack, let me know and I'll correct them.
When Vince got there he apologised for being late but everyone applauded him lots anyway, because he is Vince and therefore Awesome. He started his speech by explaining that there had been three choices for Government after the Election:
1. A minority Conservative Government, supported by the Liberal Democrats on certain key issues. This would most likely have lasted 6-9 months before a second General Election, in which the balance of probability would have been that the Conservatives would sweep to power with a big swing. This scenario would be a nightmare for the Liberal Democrats, as we would lose our chance of making any difference whatsoever, and would probably lose even more seats due to the swing. Both Vince himself and the Governor of the Bank of England predicted that a minority Government would cause financial meltdown, as the uncertainty in Government would be reflected in the stock markets, so the country would generally end up in an even worse situation than it was left in by Labour. No one currently in Government wanted this to happen.
2. A Government made up of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and other smaller parties (the so-called Rainbow Coalition). Some parts of the Press have suggested that, of the 5 LibDems currently on the front bench, Vince is the one least comfortable working with the Conservatives. But he made it very clear that this is a misrepresentation. He repeated what I've heard from other sources, that of the Labour Party, "only Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson" wanted to do a deal with the LibDems. The "younger generation wanted to have some time in Opposition to regroup", and the "old dinosaurs - Blunkett, Straw and the like went to the Press shouting" about how much they didn't want a Coalition. Labour made it more-or-less impossible for a deal to be reached.
3. A Liberal Democrat-Conservative Government (what we actually have, hopefully for the next 5 years). Apparently David Cameron, George Osborne and other key figures like Oliver Letwin were very interested in working with the Liberal Democrats and were bending over backwards to make concessions to the Liberal Democrats on key areas of policy.
Vince said there are tensions within the Government but it's not between the two Parties, as you might think. In fact the Conservative leadership is working very well with the LibDems. The problems are the right-wing Conservatives, "who think they have a divine right to rule", and are not happy with the new, liberal Conservatism - and "certainly not with loony lefties like me in their Government". Also the traditional Tory Press, the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, are doing everything in their power to break up the Coalition. It is not a coincidence that the Telegraph decided to wait until now before publishing the allegations about David Laws. None of it is new news, they have deliberately waited to dish the dirt.
Vince also said that on the day David Laws was having to deal with the allegations, he himself spent hours dealing with the Daily Mail, who were about to publish an article saying that he's dying! It's a complete fabrication, he's "very healthy", but that's the lengths they'll go to in their attempts to undermine the Coalition.
However, Vince said that while a lot of the Press are against the Coalition ("the Daily Mirror because it's not left-wing enough"), people in the country seem very much in favour. The Government is getting high ratings in opinion polls and "people seem to be engaged by the idea of Parties working together". "No one talks about a hung Parliament any more, it's now a Coalition, which is a much more positive thing."
Vince has one of the largest departments, dealing with business, higher education and science. He has a budget of £22 billion - but still had to find £800 million of savings overnight. He is also in charge of 78 quangos! (which is clearly too many). He talked about some of the stuff in the Coalition Agreement, which has all been said already elsewhere - but added that the LibDems were surprised how green the Conservative Party leadership genuinely are ("we thought it was all hot air"), and there are a lot of energy and low carbon proposals that have come from the Tories. He said there were issues such as the Conservatives wanting to raise the limit on tuition fees whereas the LibDems wanted to scrap them, but the Government can't currently afford to put any more money into higher education. I think he said the current Budget Deficit is 18-20% of GDP, which is just insane? (It was 14% when Labour took over, if I heard the numbers right).
He responded to a question about LibDem Party identity by saying how it's strange/difficult that basically half of the LibDem MPs are now in Government: 5 in the Cabinet and the rest as Junior Ministers or Parliamentary Private Secretaries. We don't have many backbenchers to hold the Government to account. However, unlike the Conservatives, the LibDems had a conference of over 3000 people where party members could put forward their views and finally vote on the Coalition - "it was a bit North Korean, 3000 votes to 2 or something in the end, but at least everyone's ideas were listened to". He also pointed out that every single LibDem MP was consulted on the proposals and had the opportunity to express concerns then.
He said that much of our Party identity will come from the Party Conference, which should be more fun this year as "we don't have to be on our best behaviour because of the Election" (!) - fewer set speeches and so on. In this and a later question he pointed out how there are and will continue to be big ideological differences between the two Parties in the Coalition and neither Party intends to merge identity - although there is a risk of the Conservative Party fragmenting.
Vince supports Simon Hughes as the new LibDem Deputy Leader, in case anyone was interested.
A guy at the back said that he was a former Labour Party member and was thinking of going back to them because the LibDems had done what he didn't want and put the Conservatives in power. Vince said that as a former Labour Party member himself he struggles with this every day, but that ultimately, if we're able to get the electoral reform we want, tactical voting will become a thing of the past. "It's ridiculous that currently we tell people in one area to vote for us to keep Labour out, and in another area to vote for us to keep the Tories out". He suggested that if we're able to get AV - it's not proportional representation, but better than the current system - you'll be able to vote for the Party that best expresses your beliefs/ideals because your vote will count. Vince also said that while we've lost about 1000 members since the Election, we've gained a lot more (the number might have been 12,000, I didn't hear it properly).
Another man asked what our current policy was on Afghanistan - "the country is losing money hand over fist yet we've sent over all these troops who are making ABSOLUTELY NO DIFFERENCE. We should BRING THEM BACK". He got a round of applause for his question, because let's face it, how many pro-war LibDems are there? Vince said that he's not completely up to date on foreign policy but he has to agree, and that the current exit strategy is really tied to what the US are doing, because they supply 80-90% of the troops, and once they pull out we wouldn't be able to continue by ourselves.
A girl asked what the Government's response to the bombing of the Gaza flotilla will be and he said that they're monitoring the situation closely. "While Israel still has some friends they are mostly very embarrassed and cautious right now".
There were some questions about taxation and business but I really tuned out - I don't understand that sort of thing. Vince did mention having been on the train with David Cameron the other week going up to Leeds, and how on the way they'd thrashed out the details of breaking up the banks. He confirmed that he's currently putting together a task force, and they will spend about a year working on the proposals. He said that David Cameron and George Osborne have appointed him to be "the ogre" and "they're threatening" errant banks/businesses with "having to talk to Vince!".
Someone from Richmond Council asked a very technical question about academies and "free" schools, and I understood neither the question nor the answer to it. Though I can tell you the asker was relieved! And a woman asked about investing in China. Vince said that currently 60% of our trades are with the European Union, which is a problem now with the collapse of the Eurozone economy. The Government is very keen to build a relationship with India and China - particularly with India for now, because of the shared language and history. He has been invited to Shanghai - "I've been invited all over the place!", but prefers India because they are more democratic and open.
Oh yes, a man in the balcony said how he doesn't believe there's such as thing as liberal Conservatism and would like it if that phrase was abolished, and expressed great concern about the fact we're allied to the Conservatives yet they sit with the raving right-wing homophobes and nutters in the European Parliament. Vince said that was David Cameron's attempt to spike David Davis, and we shouldn't be concerned about it because the Conservative leadership is against homophobia and injustice.
The last question was about BP, and considering that they put a lot of money into the British economy, whether the British Government should be doing anything about the fact the American Government wants to sue them. Vince said that you'll see his reply in the newspapers tomorrow and he will no doubt be criticised for it, but he doesn't see that they should do anything. "Should the Prime Minister phone up President Obama and say 'please call off the attack dogs'? They are a large, multinational company who have caused a global disaster". He said that he used to work in the oil industry, and these sorts of things happen. It's not for the Government to "sail the gun boats to Washington because a company with 'British' in the name" has made a big mistake. The company is not owned or part-owned by the State so the State should not interfere. He got tremendous applause for this answer.
There were still lots of people who wanted to ask Vince questions, but he was only supposed to be speaking until 9pm. Boo. Then some poor sod from Richmond Council had to talk about the local election, which very few people were interested in.
After the meeting various people were giving Vince books to autograph, and I asked him if I could take his photo for all my friends on the internet, because I needed to report back what sort of tie he was wearing. He said "Oooh, Facebook?" and I said "Something like that" and he said "You'd better get in the photo, then!". So I gave my camera to a complete stranger, which is why I have one almost in-focus photo with my eyes shut, and another photo where my eyes are open but it's blurry as anything. I said I hope that when we are in a position to look at tuition fees again, priority will be given to important subjects such as the pure sciences and engineering, as you don't need to give people a financial incentive to study law or media studies, but the country is desperately running out of scientists. He made the right sort of agreeing noises, and said that university science departments are going bankrupt, and I said "Yes - I believe there are only 4 universities left in London where you can study chemistry". Well, I'll write to him about that when the country's finances are looking a bit better.
Eeeeeeeeeeee! I met Viiiiiiiiiince! And he is a cuddly teddy bear!