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Tuesday, December 21, 2010 

He fought the war and the war won.

The Vince Cable "going to war with Murdoch" furore is one of those wonderful occasions in politics where absolutely everyone, with the exception of the person at the centre of the storm is in the wrong.

Seeing as the Telegraph kicked the whole thing off, we may as well start with them. There really is something desperately pathetic and certainly unethical about sending round hacks posing as constituents, not to expose any kind of serious wrongdoing but to instead just to secretly record gossip which can then be splashed on the front page for a cheap story in the run up to Christmas. Reading the censored transcript you can even note that Cable asked for what he was saying to not be quoted which the Telegraph completely ignored, something it would have almost certainly followed had he been talking freely to journalists. Rather than this being Cable spouting nonsense, boasting or showing off as the likes of Julian Glover have put it, it was instead him being perhaps indiscreet with two people he thought were Liberal Democrat voters. At worst he's exaggerating his influence and power in claiming he'd be able to bring down the coalition as a nuclear option by resigning, and very few politicians are guilty of humility. It's not even as if Cable said anything as originally reported by the Telegraph which the more enterprising journalist couldn't have found out and written up, even if without direct attribution; there are disagreements in any government, and anyone who isn't completely signed up to the Cameron agenda can see that their numerous reforms are going much too far far too quickly. These are hardly original thoughts, even coming from a minister.

Quite why then the Telegraph decided to omit Cable's one notable and arguably deserving of public knowledge comment, that he was going to war against Rupert Murdoch over the proposed News Corporation takeover of BSkyB, only for a "whistleblower" (read: disgruntled Telegraph hack) to leak the complete transcript to Robert Peston is a mystery, or rather isn't. Unless the Telegraph was holding it back for tomorrow's paper, something no one seems to believe, even though they have more secretly recorded conversations with MPs, then the only reason it decided not to include it is for the reason that they would have rather had someone as business secretary apparently prepared to block the takeover which they themselves oppose than say, Jeremy (C)Hunt, whose views on the constricting nature of our media ownership laws are already on record. It's a wonderful insight into how journalism, even on what used to be known as the broadsheets works: self-interest trumps everything else, including a politician potentially abusing his power.

The problem with that view is that the idea that politicians ever make decisions on their merits rather than either ideology or short-term advantage is fairly laughable. Vince Cable would have been absolutely right to block Murdoch's bid to fully own Sky on the grounds that he already has enough of a stranglehold over our media, regardless of what the European Commission thinks, even if he was against the takeover as a matter of principle. If you want a truly independent decision made, rather than just a "quasi-judicial one", as the business secretary's oversight was until today so deliciously referred to, then give it either to a judge or a quango rather than a politician. All that's been achieved by moving media and telecoms policy from the Department of Business to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is a passing of the buck, albeit one which will delight both Murdoch and the Conservatives themselves, safe in the knowledge that Hunt rather than Cable can be relied upon to make the right decision.

That, more than anything, is the real lesson from today's antics. You simply can't be in any variety of government and be against Murdoch, let alone threaten to go to war against him, especially if you favour not having your voicemail messages listened in to. This is exactly why we've had the miserable sight of both Ed Miliband and John Denham rushing out to condemn Cable, even as Labour gets chewed to pieces in the Sun, as they still believe that one day it'll be their turn to bask once again in the warm glow of Murdoch media support.

As for the coalition itself, both Cameron and Clegg know only too well that Cable is the only remaining Liberal Democrat fig leaf in the cabinet. Removing him would have exposed Clegg and his main cronies entirely, something he simply couldn't countenance. Cameron will probably be secretly delighted; the decision over BSkyB given to Hunt to wave through, Cable emasculated and the prospect of having a true believer in David Laws ready to step in once he's been given the all clear. The real worries, as from the very beginning, remain with Clegg, knowing full well that should the coalition fall apart it's his party that'll suffer, not the Conservatives. Should Cable return to the backbenches he could well lead the discontent within the party, something that for now at least has been postponed. Whether that possibility becomes an inevitability remains to be seen.

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