Sir Vince Cable is probably the most high-profile figure the Liberal Democrats have. Still languishing on 10% or less of the vote, the party needs all the big names it can get. Cable was Business Secretary under the Coalition government, famous for irritating his Tory counterparts with his left-leaning views and obstinacy when he believed that David Cameron and co. were leading the country astray. His popularity was perhaps at its greatest when he chided Gordon Brown in 2007 for a transformation from “Stalin to Mr Bean”. Now he is trying to rebuild support as leader of a party that many believe to be staring down the barrel of irrelevance, yet which has tried to establish a niche for itself in British politics by being avowedly pro-European, and one of the loudest voices calling for a referendum on the final terms of the Brexit deal. We meet in the aftermath of his recent appearance at the Cambridge Union, and I begin by asking what, in the light of an extensive new Channel 4 poll showing that 54% of people would now vote Remain, has changed since 2016.
“The first thing is actually demographic. There’s a vast difference between the voting preferences of older people and younger people. In the two-and-a-bit years since the last vote there’s been a lot more younger people coming through the system, and many of the older people are no longer here. That’s a rather brutal fact but it’s one of the key factors.” He goes on to explain that many of the arguments advanced in favour of Brexit – “more money for the NHS, in particular [the argument] that Britain was going to get all these wonderful trade agreements around the world” – have been undermined in recent months. “Also, [Arron] Banks’ involvement in dirty money and so on is, I think, damaging the credibility of the Brexit case. He’s now saying he’d vote Remain next time, it’s bizarre!”
Arron Banks is a British businessman who rose to prominence in 2014 after donating £1 million to UKIP. Extensively involved with Leave.EU, the pro-Brexit group endorsed by Nigel Farage, last week it was revealed that he is being investigated by the National Crime Agency for irregularities in the spending of the campaign. Banks is scheduled to talk at Cambridge University Conservative Association later this month, although some have questioned the invitation in the light of these allegations. Cable denies that the invitation should be withdrawn.
“I don’t think that would be sensible. He should speak because that’s his spiritual home. The Tory party are being basically taken over by UKIP, and by those prejudices, and Banks represents those, so why wouldn’t he? He hasn’t yet been convicted of a criminal offence, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t speak, I think it’s entirely appropriate that he should be speaking to local Tories.”
Sticking with the European theme, I wonder whether the Brexit issue could cause a major re-alignment of British politics, reminiscent of the split endured by Labour in the 1980s. “Yes, there’s some hope […] There are a large number of Labour MPs and Labour activists who are deeply, deeply disillusioned with Corbyn and McDonnell and the new Labour Party who may break away; I don’t know how many. And [the same is true] for a lot of Tories, depending on what happens after Brexit – if a new leader such as Rees-Mogg or Johnson took over I think they would be split, so the potential is there, but I think a lot of people are just waiting to see how Brexit plays out.”
We move onto his role in the Coalition government, during which the Lib Dems (infamously, or not, depending on your view) governed for five years with the Conservatives. I ask whether or not the party is closer to Labour or the Tories. “We’re not close to either,” Cable tells me. “Obviously in 2010 we could have worked with Cameron’s lot, which we did, or Gordon Brown had we had the numbers. But now I think the differences [we have] with both parties are too profound.”
The fact that Britain is becoming more ideologically polarised perhaps explains why the Liberal Democrats, so often called ‘centrists’ or ‘moderates’ – although this view is not shared by much of the party’s membership – are failing to attract mass support in a world of extremes. I finish by asking whether the past few years, particularly his experiences in government, have changed Sir Vince’s political views in any way. “[As a result of being a minister] I think I was less economically liberal than when I started. I mean, I did realise the importance and the effectiveness of the right kind of government intervention. We had some successes with the Industrial Strategy and the British Business Bank, and lots of other things… but I’ve become more inclined now towards government working as a [positive influence] on the private sector rather than stepping back.”