The business secretary said meeting a pledge to reduce immigration to under 100,000, was an "unattainable" target unless areas that benefited Britain, such as international student numbers, were hit. It wasn't part of the Coalition agreement.
"We have obviously no control over the European Union and that is actually where much of the movement comes. And a lot of the public anxiety which is experienced in by-elections and elsewhere has actually been about people from Eastern Europe.
"Now, you can argue whether that's a good thing or a bad thing but it's got nothing to do with the non-EU, which is the area which is controlled by government.
"The reducing to under 100,000 is not government policy and it would be unattainable without, if it was attainable enormous damage would be done, notably through overseas students, which is one of the biggest components, actually."
However Cable appeared to strike a remarkably different tone on immigration than his party leader, who is to call for a bail-like system of security bonds to tackle visa abuse in his first speech on immigration as deputy prime minister.
The bonds would be paid as a cash guarantee from visa applicants coming from high-risk countries and would be repaid once the visitor leaves Britain.
Clegg will unveil the radical proposal as he outlines his vision for a "tolerant Britain, zero-tolerant of abuse" at the liberal think-tank, the Centre Forum.
"The challenge isn't just stopping people coming into Britain illegally, it's about dealing with individuals who come over legitimately, but then become illegal once they're already here," he will say today.
The tension between Clegg and Cable over immigration came as the business secretary, who is known to be closer to the Labour Party on many issues than the Tories, appeared to also distance himself from the Lib Dem leadership and its formal links with the Conservatives in government.
Asked by The House whether he wanted to be part of the so-called "quad" of George Osborne, David Cameron, Danny Alexander and Clegg which meets to settle major policy issues he said: “It’s not a club I am fighting to get into."
In the wide-ranging interview, Cable said he would stand for election again in 2015 and hinted they he still harboured leadership ambitions, pointing out he was in the company of great prime ministers by continuing in politics at an older age.
Asked if Gladstone was his role model he said: "Yes, well, he became prime minister when he was over 80, didn't he? I think Churchill was over 70, wasn't he?"
"Talking of role models, Deng Xiaoping totally transformed China in the last century. I think he was 80 when he took over. And he survived the Long March."