Interview: Vince Cable—Tim Farron lacks experience

Cable "wouldn't put the same emphasis" on the fight for a second EU referendum

March 21, 2017
Former Business Secretary Vince Cable ©Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images
Former Business Secretary Vince Cable ©Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images

“An issue in the longer term—it's not a problem now—is that he was not in the coalition government in any capacity.”

In an exclusive interview with Prospect, Vince Cable, former Business Secretary and Liberal Democrat grandee, argued that Tim Farron faces a challenge. “One of our big selling points for 2020 and beyond is that... we've been in government, we've done the difficult thing. I think one of his issues will be the need to assemble around him people who have been there, been in that government.”

When I asked whether Farron lacks experience, Cable replied: “Yes,” but added: “It was inevitable.”

Cable is one of Britain’s best-known politicians, having served in David Cameron’s Cabinet from 2010 to 2015 while MP for Twickenham. Now 73, he exudes authority, and the Liberal Democrat hierarchy will pay close attention to his opinion of the leadership.

Under Farron, the party has become unambiguously pro-Remain, hoping to sweep up the disillusioned 48 per cent while the Tories pursue a hard Brexit and Labour gets itself in a muddle. In addition, Farron has said that there should be a second referendum once the terms of Brexit are known.

Speaking to me at the Lib Dem Spring Conference in York, Cable made a remarkable break from the party line: “I wouldn't put the same emphasis on that…. I worry that trying to deal with this issue through a simple binary choice, endless referendums undoing each other... you get into the Scottish referendum situation.”

Farron has also defended the freedom of movement which comes with EU membership, but Cable continued to differ, explaining: “I've believed in recent years that free movement of labour is not an indefensible position.”

In the General Election of 2015, the Lib Dems had one of the most traumatic nights in their history, crashing from 57 to 8 MPs. Cable admitted that the party is building “from a very weak base,” and "a terrible position in terms of parliamentary representation." Farron’s long-term standing will depend on his party’s recovery from this. "The more we see by-elections, council elections, the more we consolidate the 'Remainer vote', the more credible he will be."

In fact, thanks to a spate of recent local by-election successes, he is “rapidly building credibility.” While council elections are very different to general elections, and good results in the former don't guarantee good results in the latter, Liberal Democrat gains over recent months have been impressive. Late last month the Lib Dems gained both Charterlands and Kettering from the Conservatives, having stood in neither ward last time around. In Chigwell the Tories held on—but the Lib Dem vote share was up 20.5 per cent.

When I asked Cable about possible successors to Farron, he replied: “I think he is there for the duration,” but didn’t rule anything out in the long-term, adding: “There are a lot of very talented people coming in... who knows, in ten years’ time we could be a very different situation.”

Cable is widely known for his economic expertise, and gained a reputation as an economic sage after it was reported that he predicted the 2008 recession. I asked him whether Brexit could result in a downturn of the kind we saw in '08. “I think we simply don't know at this stage. One of the worst problems about Brexit is that it’s creating enormous uncertainty on top of all the other uncertainties in the world, making it very difficult for people in business to make rational decisions for the long-term.”

We do know that there have already been “some tangible consequences” of the Brexit vote: “a big devaluation” in the value of the pound. It slumped again on Monday when the date for the triggering of Article 50 was confirmed by No 10.

“I can certainly envisage a scenario, it may not be probable, but possible, in which things go terribly wrong with Brexit, the conditions within the Tory party become unmanageable, Labour isn't electable… If that happened [the Lib Dems] could make a breakthrough very quickly.”

When our discussion turned to the root cause of his party’s 2015 nightmare, Cable was frank: “Our support collapsed literally within months of being in the coalition. We had very good reasons for being there: it was the only way to form a stable government, there was an economic crisis and we were working with another party in the national interest. But somehow that very simple message didn't get across.”

Despite this admission, he was quick to defend his party's record in government. “There's a long list of things we did which have endured. I think it's a real legacy so I'm proud of what we did.” He rattled off policies that were in his view successful, adding, controversially: “We made sure universities were properly funded. I know it was unpopular at the time—but it was a good policy.”

As our interview drew to a close, I asked Cable about the state of "small-l liberalism" globally. “We are under pressure, but people rather exaggerate the scale of the crisis by reference to populism... Interestingly in France Emmanuel Macron, who I dealt with extensively [while Business Minister], is a genuine liberal... and might well win.”

Right-wing populism “is very worrying but the liberal forces on the other side, I think, are still there.”

Indeed, this long-time defender of the liberal cause is among them. When I asked whether he would ever stand as an MP again, he told me: “I am prospective candidate in Twickenham at this precise moment. So if there is an early election, what happens beyond then I don't know.”