The new leader of the Liberal Democrats on Brexit chaos, Tim Farron's mistakes and political dealsby Alex Dean / August 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
“Clearly we don’t know what the world will be like in five, ten years’ time.”
I asked the new Liberal Democrat leader, Vince Cable, if his party would ever consider going into coalition again. His response was shocking.
“Our overall stance is to try and be constructive and work with other people.” The MP for Twickenham continued. The Lib Dems couldn’t “under current circumstances” work with either Labour or the Tories—but Cable refused to rule out a deal long-term.
The Lib Dems’ decision in 2010 to join forces with the Conservatives is thought to have badly damaged their electoral standing, but Cable was steadfast: “I personally think the coalition did a lot of good, and think a lot of people now recognise that.”
I met Cable one afternoon in early august at Twickenham’s United Reform Church, ahead of a surgery with his constituents. He is looking to steady the ship after his party’s dire showing in June’s general election, and had harsh words for his predecessor, Tim Farron. He “got distracted in the first week of the campaign,” which “meant we didn’t get a hearing at the start.” The party’s haul in the end was 12 MPs—an improvement on the previous tally of nine, but a major disappointment for a Lib Dem hierarchy which had gambled on sweeping the anti-Brexit vote.
In July, following a heated row about his stance on LGBT issues, Farron resigned. Cable’s main rival for the leadership, the much-younger Jo Swinson, announced she would not stand and Cable took the helm. Having served as Business Secretary between 2010 and 2015, he had sold himself on his wealth of experience.
Speaking slowly, Cable gave his explanation for why the party’s vote share “was far below what it should have been.” Farron offered a referendum on the final Brexit deal struck by the government, but “people were not in the mood for a second referendum, they thought we were trying to re-run the last one.” Cable hopes that the promise of a vote on the deal in “about 18 months, something like that” will go down better now.
Tim Farron “got distracted in the first week of the campaign”
Farron mounted fierce defences of EU free movement as leader. While Cable subscribes to the “principle” of free movement, “I think we should be pragmatic. It’s very clear that the public needs some assurance that migration is being managed.”
On some things the party will not change. Cable will press on with its fiercely pro-European agenda. Asked whether there will be a Brexit-induced recession, he refused to rule anything out, saying “I don’t know… but the economic outlook isn’t good.”
Pressed on whether Brexit might not happen, he confirmed: “quite apart from the politics of it, the sheer practicalities of redoing all the regulatory arrangements—you’ve seen the Euratom story, you multiply that by 100 and you see what’s in store. And [the government] may just not be able to cope with it.” Indeed, “the whole process of Brexit is going to become a lot more painful and more complicated than anybody anticipated.”
Worryingly, “A lot of regulatory arrangements could simply lapse in 18 months’ time,” he said, which will create “massive uncertainty over business, potentially very large scale disruption.”
While in government, Cable worked with Liam Fox, now international trade secretary. A major concern is that “his ideas on new trade agreements are completely off the wall and totally unrealistic.”
I continued to press Cable on hot button Lib Dem issues—including that most controversial of subjects: tuition fees.
Nick Clegg has apologised for the party’s 2010 pledge not to raise them—would Cable follow suit? After a pause, he said the pledge “did us a lot of harm.” I asked him if he was sorry. “Yes, we all were. But it was three elections and seven years ago.” He was keen to stress that it was the pledge he regretted, rather than the policy itself. “we had to do what we did, and actually the policy has worked perfectly well in many ways.”
“The public needs some assurance that migration is being managed”
Associated with unpopular coalition decisions, and now aged 74, will Cable be able to provide the new energy the party needs—or would Swinson have offered something Cable cannot? “She has strengths, I have strengths, we intend to operate as a team.” Note that at 74 William Gladstone had two full terms as Liberal prime minister ahead of him. For Gladstone, the secret to longevity was wood-cutting, which he pursued into his 80s. Cable’s hobby of choice is ballroom dancing: “I’ve just been in Kingston doing an hour of it,” he told me. “I’m pretty fit.”
What next for Cable and the Lib Dems? “I think a big jump in the national vote share is what I’m aiming to see,” he said. Britain still has an appetite for “Sensible centrism, being outward looking, liberal… all those things resonate.”
What’s more, it’s important to remember that “we haven’t left [the EU]… We’ve just felt the beginnings of an impact, and we’re just beginning to see what it’s like. The public mood will change.” When it does, Cable hopes his party will stand to benefit.
“I think in the current circumstances there is at least the possibility of making a big breakthrough. I’m not saying it will happen, but there is the potential to make it happen because of the polarisation of British politics at the moment—between an extreme Brexit Tory government that is utterly dysfunctional and a bizarre Labour government.”
“Between those two there is an enormous space to occupy,” Cable said. “It’s our job to try and fill it.”