Vince Cable: We could still stay in the EU, but rejoining will take decades

The departing Liberal Democrat leader talks Brexit, climate change, and the fate of the two big parties.

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Vince Cable is giving up his party’s leadership, but not politics. He hasn’t even given up on stopping Brexit, although the parliamentary path to doing so looks thin.


“The 90 minutes are up, the referee’s whistled, you’ve had extra time [and now] a penalty shootout.” he smiles/ “I think that [a second referendum] is becoming plausible, seriously plausible.”


Although the Twickenham MP has had limited opportunities for national prominence as party leader, he oversaw a successful set of local election results in 2018, particularly in heavily pro-Remain areas. But will the Liberal Democrats become a party of Rejoin; one committed to taking the UK back into Europe?


“I'm afraid simply saying we are going to rejoin immediately makes no sense,” he replies. “I doubt that the EU would be terribly keen to help us, to be frank. We would be rejoining as a new applicant with all the problems associated with it: the currency, the Schengen and the rest of it, which would be very, very difficult to get people to swallow.


“Rejoin is potentially a long term project…we're talking about five years, ten years, people may want to think again. And I'm sure my party will be leading the charge in saying that we should reopen this question. I'd just caution against the argument that if we leave we're [going to] go straight back in. I'm not sure that's either practical or politically sellable.”


Although Cable is a committed pro-European, his interests have laid in domestic policy, and he has always sought as leader to talk about more than the European question. To mark his departure Cable has written a collection of essays, Beyond Brexit, which lay out what he sees as the big issues facing the country and around which the party should unite.


Cable is clearly proud of his achievements as Secretary of State for Business during the coalition government, but as leader, he ruled out taking part in another coalition. What happened?


“Obviously I’m not against coalition in principle,” he says, “It’s just when you have a Tory party like the present Tory party and when you have a Corbynite Labour party, how can we in practice form a coalition?”


He points out that the party is in coalition with Labour in Wales; and in his own council of Richmond, which the Liberal Democrats won back in emphatic fashion in 2018, Cable notes that the party had “a tacit understanding with the Greens locally [that] was very much agreed at leadership level. Not everybody in the party approves of it… but I thought it was a good initiative. It's given them some seats on the council, helped us to win by more than we otherwise would have done, and I'm well in favour of having a greener element in our party, so it fitted the bill. 

Some people criticised us because [the Green Party has] a different view on nuclear weapons, I thought that wasn't probably the best way to decide what you do in local government, but anyway. That kind of politics seems totally grown up and rational and I struggle to understand why people have trouble with it.”

Green issues are one of the issues that Cable believes could revive the liberal centre. The other is identity politics.


“If you look at all the things that are really exciting people at the moment: Scotland, Europe, immigration, they're all identity politics,” he says, “the kind of things you and I might think are important, like who owns industries and how do you run business and what should be the distribution of income and what's fair taxes – they're… not exactly exciting the man in the pub.”

Identity politics is “changing the way we look at politics, not necessarily in a good way”, he adds. But it’s not all bad news from a Liberal Democrat point of view.

“It changes the whole way we look at politics,” Cable says, “It isn't right-left and people like us in the middle because we think private enterprise and active state is a good thing combined… The idea of the centre in a right-left world doesn't mean anything anymore, because in this new world you have a different dialectic. It's either the outward looking, liberal (in a small l) versus closed, inward looking, nationalistic, sectarian... it's very clear in that world what we stand for. It gives us a very clear identity.”


For Cable, a successful political movement for the present moment will “embrace several different strands, reflecting the values of the liberal and social democratic and ‘one nation’ Tory traditions”. What about a straightforward liberal party? Why couldn’t the Liberal Democrats just return to their roots?


“First of all, political reality,” he says. “The party is a fusion of the old Liberal party and of the Social Democrats [to whom Cable defected as a Labour councillor in 1981]. Those are two parts of what the party is. And narrowing down our appeal doesn't seem to me to make a great deal of sense… The fact is you know, we overlap considerably with those broad positions within the Labour party and within the Tory party. Trying to deny it in my mind makes very little sense.

Why try to be purist when you have a lot in common with other people? We're not in a position to just retreat into ideological purity. That's very much one of the traditions on the Trotskyite left. And that's not something I particularly want to replicate in our part of the political spectrum!” 

Nonetheless, Cable thinks that it is important that the Liberal Democrats hold onto “very clear liberal views and defend them”.


What does he make of the fate of similar traditions within the major parties? He sees one nation Conservativism as “almost extinct” and thinks it “is an open question” whether Labour’s social democratic tendency can reassert itself. “I’m inclined to be a bit negative, but they stand a better chance than the moderate Tories do.”


What about the Independent Group? Are they an enemy or an ally to the Liberal Democrats?


The two parties have to work together, he thinks “partly for mutual survival, because under the electoral system the last thing you want is to be fighting each other in elections. It makes no sense… more positively I mean we are, I think actually in the same place…I want to find ways of working with them.”


But as far as the Liberal Democrats go, the challenge of working with TIG will fall to a new leader.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.