The leader of the Liberal Democrats says the whole exit process could unravelby Alex Dean / March 8, 2018 / Leave a comment
This month the Liberal Democrats turned 30. It was March 1988 that the Liberal Party joined with the Social Democratic Party to form one force in the centreground of British politics.
Three decades on all is not well. The party is in the wilderness. It has just 12 MPs and is languishing at 7 per cent in the polls.
This in mind, I sat down with party leader Vince Cable in Portcullis House to ask what comes next. “It’s frustrating I would say. It is frustrating,” the MP for Twickenham said, asked about the weak support in the country.
Attempts to ride a wave of anti-Brexit sentiment have not yet come good.
But Cable, a fierce pro-European, remained adamant the Brexit process can be stopped.
“I’ve argued pretty much since I came back into parliament that there are a lot of signs that it could unravel.”
“There are a whole lot of factors that could cause that: sudden economic deterioration, big change in the public mood… the simple inability to get through the legislation.”
He will do all he can to fight the “Remain” cause. While small in numbers, that does not mean the Lib Dems are powerless. Cable is marshalling all the resources at his disposal. The Lib Dems are “on manoeuvres” in Westminster.
“I’m part of this sort of coordinating group,” he confided. “We work with Labour, Tory rebels, others, to try and achieve something in parliament.”
“I think what will emerge are six to eight pretty substantial rebellions on major issues of importance: human rights legislation, possibly postponing the date of decision beyond March 2019,” Cable said. Asked whether he was talking about extending Article 50, which sets a two-year countdown on exit, he replied “yes.”
There are also signs of a coming rebellion on the government’s plan to pull Britain out of a customs union. Any votes on this “could be quite close,” Cable said. “And I think some of us are optimistic that enough Tories will have the gumption to rebel.”
The stakes could not be higher. Cable is adamant that Theresa May’s Brexit approach is entirely wrongheaded.
The prime minister has “put together all the nice bits of the EU, asked for it, knowing perfectly well it’s not going to happen. The European Union will say ‘no’—and then there will be a sense of victimhood, you know, ‘we’re being bullied by these wicked people in Brussels.’”
“It’s going to turn out nastily,” he said.
There was another point of parliamentary mechanics I wanted to put to Cable. Thanks to an amendment from Dominic Grieve in 2017, MPs will now be given a “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit deal the government returns with. But this has led to questions over exactly what exactly a “meaningful vote” is. Cable told me: “None of us know.”
I pressed for more, and he worked the possibilities through: “If the meaningful vote led to [the final deal] being voted down I think the practical consequence would be the government sent back to reopen the issue, and that would then raise the issue about do they need more time, are they going to opt into the CU, SM at the last moment? It opens a Pandora’s box.”
We discussed Cable’s hopes for the party, which will soon have its spring conference. Thousands of delegates will gather in Southport to discuss the way forward. “I think the main purpose of it from a party view is getting people together before the May local elections.”
There are some reasons for optimism going in. “On the positive side we are actually doing pretty well in local by-elections, to the extent they are a barometer of public opinion.”
Asked for final thoughts, Cable replied: “We’ve had a rollercoaster ride in the last 30 years but I’m optimistic, I think we can break back in again with the assets we’ve got, particularly a large, young membership.”
As the Brexit storm rumbles on, you never know what will happen. The great Liberal cause could yet experience a resurgence. “I’m very hopeful,” Cable said, smiling.