Friday, January 25, 2008

House Points: Vince Cable and Northern Rock

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Fairy tales

The great nineteenth-century radical journalist William Cobbett wrote that it was typical of Britain to have the National Debt but the Crown Jewels.

As Vince Cable pointed out in his question to the Alistair Darling on Monday, something similar is now the case with Northern Rock. Under the his plans the risk stays with the taxpayer but any profits will go to private investors.

Vince said the BBC’s political correspondent had described Richard Branson as looking like the "cat what got the cream". Which is hardly surprising. He appears to be the government’s preferred bidder and, according to Vince, is proposing to put in £250 million to acquire a bank worth £100 billion.

"He has never run a bank," Vince went on, "and I believe that the profits will be routed through a Caribbean tax haven. So what benefit does the taxpayer derive from his participation?"

All in all, it is hardly surprising Mr Branson is unwilling to let the prime minister out of his sight.

Vince’s Indian summer shows no sign of drawing to a close. He retains his talent for using humour to puncture Gordon Brown. Everyone remembers "Stalin to Mr Bean", but on Monday he was nearly as good.

He recalled the "great Danish economist Hans Christian Andersen" and his story of the two conmen who visited a credulous king to sell him an imaginary suit of gold. "We have a naked King Gordon, desperately trying to cover his embarrassment over the ‘n’ word ‘nationalisation’."

Beyond that, he has Ming Campbell’s ability to come over as being above the political fray. And he has been seen on television dancing with Alesha Dixon.

Craig Revill-Horwood adds: Very good he was too. But where are the Tories in all this?

Good question, Craig. It is hard to know what the Tories believe on Northern Rock. George Osborne’s approach was to sound apocalyptic without advancing any firm proposals at all.

They can hardly favour temporary nationalisation, as Vince consistently has. But do they really want to let the market decide? That would mean shutting down the business and abolishing 6000 jobs in the North East.

The truth is that the Tories agree with the government but lack the courage to say so.

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