Interview: Vince Cable

The Liberal Democrat leader on Labour, Leaving and the Future of Liberalism

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Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable, took on party leadership after being re-elected to Twickenham in the 2017 snap election, having previously lost his seat in 2015. He took on a party that had suffered at the hands of coalition, the controversy of Vince’s predecessor Tim Farron and has created a clear pro-remain narrative to take the party forward. I began by asking him if Lib Dem leadership was ever something he expected and how he feels about having had such an opportunity.

“I lost my seat and I hadn’t expected to return. If I hadn’t been called upon to stand in the snap election I would have retired. I had a big majority and I was the most senior Lib Dem around so I stood for leadership unopposed. It was a pleasant surprise. It is not an easy job but it is an important one. I think we are now recovering quite strongly, particularly in government, and we are playing a leadership role on Brexit and I feel the party is in a stronger place than when I started.”

Brexit comes up quickly and is clearly a focal topic for Vince. “The thing about Brexit is we don’t actually know if it will happen or in what way it will happen. Even if something like Theresa May’s deal went ahead, we would still have years of chronic uncertainty as we negotiate a new agreement. I think one thing that is certain is that as a result Britain will be weaker economically and politically. But it is more of a slow puncture rather than a blowout.

“Brexit is the symptom of deeper problems. I don’t pretend that there is a simple explanation because the Brexit vote was partly defined by geography, partly by age, partly by other things. But I think it did bring out the extent to which for a large number of people in left behind communities, like people in the north of England, there is a major dissatisfaction that needs to be addressed. I think the relevance of the Lib Dems is that people are looking for practical solutions, which combine our commitment to social justice with the practicalities of working in a market economy. We demonstrated our competence in the coalition government and indeed in many areas of local government.”

The Liberal Democrats have been strong supporters of a second referendum since soon after the Brexit vote, a policy that has been strongly criticized for ignoring the will of the people and trying to force through a remain outcome. When I put this to Vince he interjects before I have even finished the question.

“I don’t deny that achieving remain is what I’d be trying to do. I’m not embarrassed to acknowledge that. And there are people in parliament who support Brexit, but do accept that it would be right and prudent to have a confirmatory referendum. I think what drives the opposition to a referendum among leave is the fear that they would lose.”

As we talk more about the role of Parliament and the people in the process of Brexit, he makes it clear that a referendum is the only way he sees to deal with the situation that has been created.

“Many of those people in Parliament who are concerned with Brexit have constituencies that voted for remain, take for example Scottish MPs. But many others are acting because they believe it is in the national interest. They believe that Brexit would be very damaging, and that people have a right to change their minds.

“It is quite interesting that there was a ruling on Brexit because someone brought a court case that argued the last referendum was contaminated by illegal practices. The judge threw out the complaint on the grounds that the referendum was advisory. Had it been a binding referendum he would have upheld the complaint.

“We are a parliamentary democracy and parliament could simply cancel Brexit altogether. But, that would be offensive to the people who have already voted. So, the more democratic approach is to go back to the people and ask what they want. Do you want to stay after all, or do you want to leave on the government’s terms?”

The other issue raised with a second referendum is the fact that it may breed more division at a time where parliament should unify the country.

“We have a divided country in any event and it is going to get worse when Brexit proceeds because we are going to be continuing to argue about our relationship with Europe. The people who are militantly pro Brexit are going to complain in any event that they have been betrayed. Having a referendum isn’t going to change all that.

“At this stage a people’s vote is still possible: it’s not probable, but it is still possible. It is the best way out. It provides an opportunity for people to rethink their opinions because the world has changed a great deal in almost three years. We’ve had Trump, external threats to the European Union, and many of the things that were promised clearly are not going to happen. So there is a good argument for going back for a confirmatory referendum. Normally when you are having an operation in a hospital or you are conducting a referendum, good practice is to go back and have confirmation. Now it is possible that my side would lose. If that is the case we accept it with good grace and we get on with life. If we win we don’t have to triumph. We would have to start dealing with the underlying causes and sorting things out properly.”

In February a number of Labour and Conservative MPs defected from their parties and formed The Independent Group, which became a political party in April. They are a pro-remain, centrist party and arguably occupy the same political space as the Liberal Democrats. Vince nonetheless seems positive about the creation of the party.

“The Independent Group has the potential to act as the catalyst for major changes in British politics because it is an early sign of the breakup of the Labour party, which is finding it impossible to combine the Marxist-Leninist traditions of the leadership with the social democratic tendencies that both MPs and party supporters expect. It is impossible. In a way it is surprising that Corbyn’s leadership has been able to keep the Labour party together for so long. I think without a doubt we are coming to the end of that.

“It is also a sign that the conservative party are attempting to hold together a party which contains English nationalists, along with more traditional One Nation Conservatives, which is proving difficult if not impossible. So I think the key point about TIG is that it demonstrates that the traditional two parties are beginning to crack under the strain and Brexit has brought this crisis to a head.

“Whether or not they succeed, I don’t know. If they work with us there is a chance, but if they try and go on their own, under the British first past the post system they will probably be swept out.”

I ask him what he feels this fundamental breakdown of the two-party system would mean for the Lib Dems going forward. He responds with more animation than he has had so far in our conversation.

“I see it very much as an opportunity. I am very positive about it. I understand why they have decided to be a group of independents, but I think there is a clear understanding that we are in a similar place politically, for example with Brexit. I think there is a mutual interest in working together. I can’t say exactly how and when, or indeed if, that will happen. But I think that is the way forward and I am very positive about it.”

Theresa May’s deal did not get the support of the Liberal Democrats. I ask Vince how he feels about her leadership and how he would have conducted the negotiations.

“May thinks that she is doing her duty by delivering an outcome that she didn’t personally support. She also, and I think this is correct, sees the negotiations on Brexit as damage limitation. She knows that Britain will be weaker, economically and in other ways, as a result of Brexit and she is trying to pursue a course of action that will keep the damage to a minimum. This infuriates Brexiteers who are trying to portray Brexit in a positive light, but sadly it is realistic. I think she probably got the best deal that anyone could have got, I don’t think there is anybody else who could have done any better considering that there was an objective to pursue Brexit.

“The one big mistake that was made had nothing to do with negotiations with Brussels, but was to do with internal British politics. She decided at an early stage not to do anything that was going to divide the Tory party. So we had these red lines keeping us out of the customs union and the single market and that is what has caused all the problems since.”

The conversation then turns away from recent events and towards Cable’s own route into politics. He was the President of the Cambridge Union, whilst reading Economics at Fitzwilliam College. He reflects on these formative years.

“I have mixed feelings about Cambridge. I went as a scientist, so I spent my first two years in laboratories and I was not totally happy doing that. When I switched to economics I felt somewhat liberated and I was doing a subject I felt more comfortable with. My political involvement also started during my time there.

“I think my most memorable time at university was when the Cuban Missile crisis occurred. There was a lot of tension and fear around that. There was also the imprisonment of Mandela at that time, so there was a big outburst of student protests, which I was involved in to some degree. It was the end of the Conservative coalition war government, which had been in power since 1951 and had been in power at that stage for 13 or 14 years. We were quickly heading for a new kind of politics so it was quite exciting to be involved in all of that debate.”

We talk more about his involvement in student politics and how it influenced his later career in the parliament.

“I think student politics is very important. Many of the people who have leadership positions today came through student politics. I did myself, to some extent. When I was a student in the 1960s I was president of the Liberal Club and we tried to form a merger with another club called the Social Democrats. It failed, but it was a first attempt to form what is now the Lib Dems. That movement had its origins in student politics, and my own involvement in it to some extent. So although student politics can be a bit juvenile and some of the behaviour you see in the Oxford Union is not particularly impressive, at the same time this is how people’s political views are formed and it is more important than some would say.”

After finishing his economics degree, Cable became a university lecturer, before working with the Kenyan government and eventually as an economics advisor in the corporate world.

“My economics background has been very helpful. First of all because I have experience in science and politics and many people come into parliament and their whole life has been spent as a researcher or working in politics, but I had a serious career teaching economics in universities and working in international organizations. I was the chief economist for Shell, and worked with big business, so when I was in parliament I was able to make a reasonably well-informed assessment of what was going on around the financial crisis. It gave me more exposure than perhaps I would have got if I had just been a normal backbench MP without that background.”

Despite having ultimately become the leader of his political party, when I ask him about his proudest achievements, he chooses to mention other things.

“I’ve had two happy marriages and I have three children that are doing well. I think having a fulfilling personal life matters a lot. In my career, I think I did most of my most useful things when I was Secretary of State. I worked on industrial strategy and changing the legislation around trade, as well as environmental policies and so on, which I think have stood the test of time. I think if people evaluate what I have done there were a lot of achievements in that period.”

Vince plans to retire as party leader in May 2019. As I begin to ask him about it he corrects me and outlines his plans for his last few months as leader.

“It’s not just about Brexit, I have one or two more tasks to do. That includes modernization of the party, we’ve got local government elections; we may have an early general election. But yes, I am thinking of moving on quite soon and there are some very good younger generation people looking to take over.”

He talks with excitement about his aspirations when he steps down.

“I have two plans really. One is to be a good constituency MP: I love my constituency and I want to continue doing a good job there. Secondly, I want to go back to writing books. I have some ideas in the pipeline which I will get to work on when I have some spare time.”

Before the interview ends, he offers me his prediction for the Liberal Democrats in a rapidly changing political world.

“I can’t predict the future. But I think we will make progress in terms of parliamentary seats in government. But, there could also be a spectacular break up in the party system, and if that happens, anything is possible.”

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