Vince Cable’s “exotic spresm” moment disguises bigger questions for the Liberal Democrats

Facing a fight for survival, the party knows the change it needs but is deeply unattractive to the agents of such change it wants to attract.

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And so the Liberal Democrat conference draws to a close: not with a bang, or a whimper, but an “exotic spresm”.

After three sleepy days in Brighton, Vince Cable’s excruciating misspeak – he had, in a heavily-trailed swipe at Conservative Brexiteers, been supposed to say “erotic spasm” – is just about the only story that has had any cut-through.

As a moment, it felt microcosmic of the party’s woes under Cable, whose lacklustre performance has had activists furrowing their brows and sighing this week. Bluntly, few people outside of Sussex were listening to his vision for a “reforming, liberal, social democratic government” anyway, and nobody was once he had fluffed his big line.

Of course, Cable has already given the public licence not to bother paying attention, having told the conference on Sunday that the party would not join a coalition. The result is a party that is much less than the sum of its political parts – one of which being that its 12 MPs, could hold the balance of power in a hung parliament. Instead, the Liberal Democrats are a vehicle for political hobbyism. Why would you listen to them?

The funny thing is that Cable’s speech, and the leadership reforms he has proposed in a bid to turn the party into a Macron-style centrist movement, grappled with that uncomfortable truth with the sort of self-flagellating frankness that made him such a nuisance to Nick Clegg in government.

He rightly said today that the Liberal Democrats are too pale, male, and unrepresentative of the country at large in their current form. The implicit message is that they face a long, slow death if they do not change significantly and the explicit one is that they at the very least need a leader who does not look and sound like him if they are to avoid it.

Then there is the bigger challenge of how to respond to a new centrist party or movement. Cable’s answer is to own it, or at least allow the Liberal Democrats to be subsumed in a sort of reverse takeover. The passage of his speech in which he dealt with the how and why is worth considering in full:

“Much now depends on the courage of mainstream MPs in the Labour and Conservative parties. They are losing control and if they can’t stop the rot, they should leave.

“But we, too, must be bold. There may be a temptation to be what our colleagues in Scotland might call the ‘wee frees’ of British politics, sniffing suspiciously at newcomers and outsiders, who lack doctrinal purity.

“We cannot afford to do that. We have to become a bigger, more diverse movement.

“If you don’t call yourself a ‘moderate’, fine. I am a liberal and a social democrat and far from moderate in my detestation of what is happening at the extremes of British politics.

“But if others choose to identify themselves as moderates who hate extremism in their own parties, we should be quibbling about labels. Let them in.”

The logic is sound. The problem is that its relationship with political reality is tenuous at best. Labour splitters in the Commons would probably work with the Liberal Democrats, and there is near-constant talk of the possibility of Tory defections, but why would either bother to actually join?

The party’s internal structures are ultra-democratic to the point of denying its leaders the right to do very much at all. Many of its members have the “Wee Free” attitude that Cable disparaged. Its brand is tarnished by five unhappy years in government and its leading lights, as has been clear here in Brighton, are divided on whether they want to bother trying again. Its monomaniacal focus on Brexit has hobbled what was once a broad electoral appeal. Its leadership is deeply uninspiring.

Therein lies the challenge facing the Lib Dems as they seek to survive. They know the change they need, but the agents of change it wants to attract – moderates at the grassroots, and disaffected Tories and Labourites in parliament – have little reason to join them. Last week, before conference, a Lib Dem source admitted to me that the success of this week depended on how well Cable sold his plans to reform the party. The bigger problem, exotic spresms aside, is that the answer is irrelevant if nobody wants to buy them.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.