‘I could be the next PM. All kinds of things hap­pen’ Re­ju­ve­nated Ca­ble plots his party’s cen­trist path back from wilderness

To go from a dozen MPs to Down­ing Street may be on the am­bi­tious side. But as Lib Dems gather for their con­fer­ence in Bournemouth their leader is pro­ject­ing a new con­fi­dence. The pub­lic will even­tu­ally see that only one party has the an­swers, he tells And

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This is the In­dian sum­mer of Vince Ca­ble. He had long nur­tured am­bi­tions to lead his party, but fi­nally gave up on them when he was one of the ca­su­al­ties of the 2015 elec­tion mas­sacre of the Lib­eral Democrats. He took his ejec­tion from par­lia­ment to be the death of his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer.

“If you’d asked me six months ago, I as­sumed my ex­ile was per­ma­nent,” he smiles. So he threw him­self into a post­po­lit­i­cal life. He tried his hand at writ­ing a thriller. He traded on his train­ing as an econ­o­mist and ex­pe­ri­ence as busi­ness sec­re­tary in the coali­tion years. “I was go­ing around uni­ver­si­ties be­ing a wise man.” Though he had made a prom­ise to his lo­cal party that he would stand again for the Lib Dems in Twick­en­ham if there were an early elec­tion, he as­sumed it wasn’t a pledge that would have to be re­deemed. “I was also do­ing ball­room dance com­pe­ti­tions in Black­pool. I’d es­tab­lished quite a good new life­style.”

Then came the snap elec­tion, the de­par­ture of Tim Far­ron as Lib Dem leader af­ter the party’s dis­ap­point­ing per­for­mance and the res­ur­rec­tion of Ca­ble as an MP. A decade af­ter he had ruled him­self out of run­ning for the job on the grounds of his age, he be­came party leader at 74.

Look­ing at the beaten-up state of the Lib Dems, some might won­der whether it was worth sac­ri­fic­ing that “good new life­style” he en­joyed out of par­lia­ment to take charge of a party that has only 12 MPs and is flatlin­ing be­neath 10 points in the opin­ion polls. “There is this old ex­pres­sion, ‘there’s noth­ing as ex as an ex-MP’. You are aware of it. I re­alised when it came to the crunch, I did miss be­ing part of the ac­tion.”

Much is writ­ten about the hunger of young am­bi­tion. Ca­ble is an ex­am­ple of how old am­bi­tion can be even hun­grier. Af­ter such a long wait for his chance to lead, and know­ing as he must that he doesn’t have all the time in the world, here is a man in a hurry. He looks en­er­gised, rather than daunted, by the chal­lenge of deal­ing with what some of his col­leagues call an “ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis” for the Lib Dems. “It’s pretty dawn to dusk stuff,” he says cheer­fully of his life as leader. “I go to bed late. I go to bed very late.” One Lib Dem peer re­cently com­plained that Ca­ble was still fir­ing off emails about this or that long af­ter mid­night. So he stopped send­ing the emails – and started send­ing post-mid­night texts in­stead.

He is the old­est per­son to lead a Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal party since Win­ston Churchill. “In the first two days af­ter I be­came leader, the ques­tions I had from jour­nal­ists were all about age. Hardly any­body has said a word about it since.”

Af­ter a pe­riod when party lead­ers got more and more youth­ful, the trend has sud­denly re­versed. Theresa May is older than David Cameron. Jeremy Cor­byn has decades on Ed Miliband. “I think it’s largely a co­in­ci­dence, but to some ex­tent events have re­moved the taboo on age. When things have been screwed up and we’re in a mess, peo­ple who have shown a cer­tain amount of en­durance and re­silience, those are the kind of qual­i­ties that peo­ple value a bit more maybe.”

When he be­came leader, there was a no­tion around that Ca­ble would be a care­taker for two years or so and then hand over to a younger torch-bearer, who most pre­sume would be the party’s deputy leader, Jo Swin­son. “No, that wasn’t the case,” he says, bluntly rub­bish­ing the idea that there was a suc­ces­sion deal be­tween them when she de­cided not to run for the top job. “I’m not putting up a limit. I do it for as long as I need to do it.”

One of his tasks at the party con­fer­ence in Bournemouth is sim­ply to lift morale. Though the Lib Dems re­ceived a surge of new mem­bers fol­low­ing the Brexit ref­er­en­dum, this did not trans­late into a boost at the June elec­tion. Their vote was down even on the slaugh­ter they suf­fered in 2015. His pri­or­ity is “get­ting up the vote share” from its cur­rent mis­er­able level. “When we’re in sin­gle fig­ures, there is an is­sue about how cred­i­ble we are. I’m try­ing to get more and more ex­po­sure and try­ing to get more def­i­ni­tion. Get some clear mes­sages across. The key thing is to get our own troops and the pub­lic per­cep­tion back to the idea that we can win.”

He iden­ti­fies “two strands” to his at­tempt to re­vive the party. “One of them is is­sue based.” The Lib Dems will have clear things to say about ad­dress­ing in­equal­ity and in­ter-gen­er­a­tional un­fair­ness. “The other is pro­ject­ing the idea that I’m an al­ter­na­tive prime min­is­ter.”

We clearly look in­cred­u­lous, be­cause he then in­sists: “You may blink, but that’s the mes­sage I need to get across and want to get across.”

It is true that we live in an era of ex­treme Cap­tion volatil­i­ty­cap dummy where cap­tion yes­ter­day’scap un­think­able­dummy cap­tion­can be­come­dummy cap to­day’s dummy re­al­ity, but cap­tion­all the dum­mysame. To cap go dum­myfrom a cap­tion dozen MPs dum­myto No dummy10 sounds, cap­tion ahem, dum­myon the cap am­bi­tious­dummy dum­my­side. Him cap­tionas prime dummy min­is­ter?cap Re­ally? dummy “Given dummy the dummy alternatives, cap­tion I think that’s plau­si­ble,” he con­tends.

He cites Em­manuel Macron’s vic­tory in France and Justin Trudeau’s rise to the premier­ship of Canada as ev­i­dence that “in these times of po­lit­i­cal up­heaval all kinds of strange things can hap­pen”.

While even the most op­ti­mistic Lib Dem may strug­gle to share his be­lief that he could become prime min­is­ter, this as­ser­tion does il­lu­mi­nate how he wants to lead the party. Un­der Far­ron, the Lib Dems fell back on their old tra­di­tion of be­ing es­sen­tially a party of protest. Ca­ble has no time for that, seek­ing to pitch them as a po­ten­tial party of gov­ern­ment.

“We haven’t been seen as even bid­ding for that ground,” he says. “Be­ing a plucky third party is not my view. It’s got to be that we are a se­ri­ous party with a se­ri­ous leader who can run the coun­try.”

The more re­al­is­tic prospect is that they might at some point in the fu­ture find them­selves again in coali­tion. “I can’t see it at the mo­ment,” he says, “but you can’t in­def­i­nitely rule it out. Not un­der the present lead­er­ship [of the Tories or Labour] and not un­der the present cir­cum­stances, but in the longer term – who knows?”

Ca­ble has al­ready started set­ting out a pol­icy stall that con­cen­trates on fair­ness and op­por­tu­nity. He puts em­pha­sis on do­ing more for the less af­flu­ent by tax­ing wealth, a strand of Lib­eral think­ing since John Stuart Mill.

“We have to be in favour of the taxation of wealth. Oth­er­wise, fight­ing

‘You’ve got to have hope and re­al­ism at the same time … you’ve got to have eco­nomic lit­er­acy and pro­gres­sive in­stincts’

in­equal­ity doesn’t mean a great deal,” he de­clares.

Ca­ble started his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer as a Labour coun­cil­lor in Glas­gow in the 1970s and then joined the mod­er­ate break­away to the SDP in the 1980s. He has al­ways been on the so­cial demo­cratic wing of his party. Dur­ing the coali­tion years he was the Lib Dem mem­ber of the cab­i­net who found it most con­spic­u­ously un­com­fort­able be­ing in gov­ern­ment with the Tories. His em­pha­sis on in­equal­ity is con­sis­tent with his ca­reer. But we sug­gest that there is a big prob­lem here. Why would vot­ers who want less in­equal­ity and an end to aus­ter­ity choose the Lib Dems when they can go the full Jeremy Cor­byn?

“You’ve got to have hope and you’ve got to have re­al­ism at the same time,” he re­sponds. “You’ve got to have eco­nomic lit­er­acy as well as pro­gres­sive in­stincts. We can do both.”

Cor­byn, he ar­gues, can’t of­fer that com­bi­na­tion be­cause “a lot of the talk is still very much 1970s kind of soft Trot, as we used to call it in the bat­tles in the Labour party. ‘We sup­port strikes to break the pay cap.’ That’s old, hard­line Ben­nite stuff. But I know there are a lot of good peo­ple in the Labour party who are try­ing to re­cap­ture some of what you and I would call so­cial democracy. Those la­tent fun­da­men­tal di­vi­sions be­tween revo­lu­tion­ary so­cial­ism and so­cial democracy are go­ing to play out.”

He is “not pre­dict­ing mass de­fec­tions” from Labour to the Lib Dems, but “there are a whole lot of is­sues where the big schisms in the Labour party could well reap­pear”.

One con­ti­nu­ity with his pre­de­ces­sor is to de­fine the Lib Dems as the party of “exit from Brexit”: un­equiv­o­cally op­posed to leav­ing the EU and pledged to a ref­er­en­dum on what­ever deal the gov­ern­ment fi­nally ne­go­ti­ates. He will be join­ing an anti-Brexit march on the Tory party con­fer­ence, bust­ing the con­ven­tion that lead­ers do not mount protests at the con­fer­ences of ri­val par­ties. “Yes, I’ve become a marcher again. I used to do this in my youth. I’ll be speak­ing to the march, I’ll be do­ing my Jeremy Cor­byn on a soap box.”

Their anti-Brexit pitch was a dis­ap­point­ing fail­ure for the Lib Dems at the elec­tion. Though 48% backed re­main in the ref­er­en­dum, the Lib Dems ended up with a vote share of less than 8%. This, he thinks, was be­cause it was “pre­ma­ture”. Back in June, “the minute I hit the doorsteps, I re­alised it wasn’t quite on tar­get. The re­main con­stituents were say­ing: ‘We’ve had this ref­er­en­dum. We don’t want an­other one. Just for the mo­ment. Let’s just get on with it, see what the gov­ern­ment can do. And the prob­lem with the phrase ‘se­cond ref­er­en­dum’ was it did look as if you were try­ing to run it again.”

“We’re now in a very dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion,” he adds, “and I think what we’re say­ing will res­onate.”

He is in reg­u­lar dis­cus­sion with Labour MPs about how to co­or­di­nate op­po­si­tion to the gov­ern­ment. That in­cludes a re­cent and lengthy dis­cus­sion with Keir Starmer, Labour’s prin­ci­pal spokesman on Brexit. On many of the cru­cial ques­tions fac­ing par­lia­ment, the key to the out­come will be whether there are enough Tory MPs pre­pared to join hands with the op­po­si­tion par­ties to amend the Brexit leg­is­la­tion in de­fi­ance of their own gov­ern­ment. “That’s the big uncer­tainty over the next six months. Whether there will be a crit­i­cal mass of them. It will take quite a lot to get those peo­ple to rebel.”

Talk­ing to Ca­ble, you get the strong im­pres­sion that he thinks the par­lia­men­tary strug­gles can­not de­liver a softer Brexit be­cause it is not re­ally avail­able as an op­tion. It is “wildly im­plau­si­ble” that “the Euro­peans will keel over and give us a pretty good deal”. It is “much more likely that the soft Brexit op­tion, the smooth tran­si­tion, will just never hap­pen. There’s too much divi­sion in the Tory party over it.” He points to the lat­est in­ter­ven­tion by Boris John­son – “the Pound­land Don­ald Trump” – as an ex­am­ple of the forces in the Con­ser­va­tive party push­ing for an “ex­treme Brexit”. Even if May now wants a softer Brexit, “her po­si­tion is very weak within her own party, not just in terms of num­bers in par­lia­ment. I can’t see that hap­pen­ing.”

“So we are faced, when­ever the cri­sis point comes, with ex­treme Brexit. We crash out. Or you have exit from Brexit. And then, who were the peo­ple who said this is go­ing to hap­pen? And who are the peo­ple who’ve got an an­swer to it or at least a way for­ward?”

At that point, or so he hopes, his party will re­ceive its re­ward in pub­lic es­teem for be­ing the peo­ple who have al­ways warned that Brexit was a dis­as­trous idea. It may be a while be­fore that hap­pens, but then one thing this Lib Dem leader knows about is wait­ing for his chance.

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