Sir Vince Cable, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, might have retired from politics last year but has lost none of his political acuity. He spoke with TCS, following an online panel event at The Cambridge Union, which asked if COVID-19 was the end of the European project. Cable was a firm believer that this would not be the end of the EU – but that it had revealed and exacerbated some threats within the union that would need to be solved, including the looming economic crisis and the threat of Hungary’s authoritarianism.
This event also fell on the day that the party-commissioned review into the Liberal Democrats 2019 election campaign was published. This review called the Lib Dem’s election campaign a ‘high-speed car crash’ and concluded that the party’s stance on Brexit alienated many voters. It also criticised the party’s attempts to present Swinson as a potential prime minister, and the lack of experience within party leadership.
Asked about his views on the findings of this internal inquiry, Cable – while acknowledging that it highlighted key issues – said, “In terms of the Lib Dem election review, I don’t necessarily share the verdict of my colleagues,” going on to explain that he felt it simultaneously missed out on key structural issues while not being sufficiently self-critical. Cable then expounded upon his own view of what went wrong for the Liberal Democrats in 2019. He was keen to highlight some of the structural issues that created an uneven playing field from the outset. “I think we had two fundamental problems in the election. One of them was the fact that the Brexit vote was divided.” He explained that a lot of the electorate perceived Labour as an acceptable ‘anti-Brexit’ option – “despite Corbyn’s ambiguity” – along with the Lib Dems “in our alliance with the Greens”. This, for Cable meant that the odds were stacked against them: “Our vote was split and the Tory vote wasn’t split.”
“Another factor that was important was that there was a real fear of the Corbyn factor in the, what I would call the ‘Soft Tory’ areas – the Winchesters, Guilfords, Cheltenhams – which we ought to have won and looked as though we were going to win. So there were structural factors.” In addition to this backdrop, the Liberal Democrats also faced problems of their own making. “I also think there were some very bad mistakes in the campaign. I don’t think that report today is sufficiently self-critical. You know, it was a terrible misjudgement to go for an early election. We could have hung in there for quite a lot longer. Building the whole campaign around Jo, who’s a very admirable person, it didn’t work and it should have been more collegiate and we should have made more use of people like Chuka Umunna, Sarah Wollaston, I think as part of that sort of leadership team. So, some bad mistakes were made and there were those two big factors.”
There is just no room in the British political system for new break-away parties
Cable went on to discuss what had happened with Change UK, which again in his view, played a role in the way the 2019 election operated. “There is just no room in the British political system for new break-away parties,” he explained “it was a point that Chuka realised, I think, before anybody else and Heidi as well. I had very close contacts with them through the whole of that process and I tried to persuade them not to go it alone, because they stood no chance. And they would waste a lot of money and a lot of energy and they would be splitting our vote and not achieving anything.”
Cable also explained that the Green Party was unlikely to make many in-roads either, given the current system in the UK. “If they’re going to survive and we’re going to survive we will have to work with them in some kind of an alliance, of the type that I negotiated with the greens last time, with Caroline, and which, in a closer election would have paid real dividends.” Indeed, for Cable, the current electoral system of First Past the Post presents serious issues in terms of political pluralism. “If there are going to be new groups emerging, then they’ve got to work within the existing structure until we get proportional voting. And that means working with us and working with the Greens. There’s no future in an organisation going off on its own.”
Looking to the future, however, Cable was optimistic – particularly thanks to Labour being led by Keir Starmer. “In terms of where we go next, I mean, British politics is largely frozen at the moment. Nothing’s going to happen until we’re out of this pandemic. I think the one big thing that’s changed is that the Labour Party have now got a sensible leader, who’s highly electable and has sensible people around him. I think that’s helpful to the Lib Dems, just because people are not going to vote for us in a general election if they’re afraid of a Labour Government which they see as dangerous. That’s no longer the case. I think we may be back to 1997, where the Lib Dems had a big breakthrough, partly because of their own efforts but partly because of Tony Blair. We could be back into that kind of territory.”
In the short run, the Lib Dem’s objective is to do what I was doing when I was the leader – building up the local government base – we had our best ever results a year ago and I think we can do that again.
In terms of working towards a clear objective, Cable explained that “In the short run, the Lib Dem’s objective is to do what I was doing when I was the leader – building up the local government base – we had our best ever results a year ago and I think we can do that again.” Indeed, in Cambridge, while Labour held on to an overall majority in the May 2019 local elections, the Liberal Democrats successfully increased their share of the vote, holding 13 seats and gaining two new ones to become the second-largest local party. However it is not just Cambridge – an admittedly, relatively safe area for Left and Centre-Left parties – that Cable has his sights on. “It may be too long ago for you to remember but the Lib Dems used to run Newcastle, Liverpool, Sheffield, Hull, Bristol and many other places and I think the next step for us is to get back to being the party of local government, having a very powerful base in municipalities as well as in suburbs as well as rural areas.”
While Cable sees a future for the Liberal Democrats, the current state of play in British politics leaves much to be desired. The question of Brexit, which had been the focus of UK politics until the pandemic appears to have been somewhat swept under the carpet – despite the pandemic’s impacts, Government officials have stated it is still going ahead, with no extension to the transition period. “We shouldn’t be doing this,” said Cable. “It’s just absolutely insane that we’re going through this whole Brexit process at a time when business confidence is already on the floor, the economy is in a dreadful state.” Why, then, is the government still going ahead with this? “The cynic in me believes that, you know, the government’s just hoping that all the negative effects will be lost in the general mess.”
It’s just absolutely insane that we’re going through this whole Brexit process at a time when business confidence is already on the floor, the economy is in a dreadful state.
“It is a rather reckless thing to do, but they’re not going to listen to people like me, because I’m you know, the usual suspect.” Acknowledging his lack of sway in terms of the Conservative government’s decision making, he went on to highlight those who could make a difference: “What I am hoping is that business groups and, you know, sensible Tories. Even, you know, people who are fairly Brexit-y will just prevail on them to be sensible and to quietly back off. I think what may happen is at the end of the transition that there will be no deal, but there will be a tacit understanding that nothing’s going to change very much in the next few years, and that will hopefully deal with some of the uncertainty.”
However, Cable does not see the government’s current position as completely stable. Referring back to the words of Nathalie Tocci, who had been a speaker in the previous panel discussion on the impacts of COVID-19 on the European project, Cable said. “I think one of the very good points she made was that the effects of the pandemic has been to reassert the value of dispassionate experts, who don’t play to the gallery, who are driven by evidence. And that’s not consistent with populism.” Indeed, the pandemic seems to have highlighted issues within, not just certain European governments, but the UK too. “In the UK, there is a bit of a hint already that the government are drifting into trouble, Johnson’s sort of, bluster, he’s come across reasonably well on the first outing but as it becomes clear he hasn’t got a grasp of the detail, his credibility is beginning to wane.”
And after that? “People will be looking for alternatives… and maybe a centre-left government will seem perfectly plausible in a few years’ time.”