Vince Cable has been humiliatingly stripped of his responsibilities for regulating the media after he claimed to have “declared war” on Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp empire.
The Business Secretary hung on to his Cabinet post but suffered a stinging rebuke from David Cameron, who described his comments – caught on tape by undercover reporters – as “totally unacceptable and inappropriate”.
The Prime Minister ruled that Mr Cable would play no further role in News Corp’s bid to take a majority stake in the broadcaster BSkyB, while his responsibilities for media policy and competition go to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
A contrite Mr Cable said in a statement that he fully accepted the decision by Mr Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, adding: “I deeply regret the comments I made and apologise for the embarrassment that I have caused the Government.”
Mr Cable appears to have survived largely because Mr Clegg could not afford to lose another senior Liberal Democrat minister from the coalition, but he is likely to emerge from the controversy as a seriously diminished figure – and Labour has already branded him a “lame duck” minister who has lost all credibility.
The timing of the news of his comments about Mr Murdoch could hardly have been worse for Mr Cable as it came immediately after Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg had attempted to play down earlier comments by the Business Secretary suggesting he would quit if he was “pushed too far” by the Tories.
They were recorded by two Daily Telegraph reporters posing as constituents in his Twickenham constituency. The newspaper did not include the remarks concerning Mr Murdoch in its original report, but a copy of the tape was leaked to the BBC.
On it, Mr Cable is heard discussing his role as the final arbiter of News Corp’s bid for BSkyB. “I have declared war on Mr Murdoch and I think we’re going to win,” he said. “I didn’t politicise it because it is a legal question, but he is trying to take over BSkyB. He has a minority shareholding and he wants a majority – and a majority control would give him a massive stake.
“I have blocked it, using the powers that I have got. They are legal powers that I have got so I can’t politicise it. But for the people who know what is happening, this is a big, big thing. His whole empire is now under attack.”
News Corp said it was “shocked and dismayed” by his comments, saying that they raised serious questions about “fairness and due process”.