Has Vince Ca­ble been smok­ing too many hal­lu­cino­genic drugs?

The hard­est truth for the Lib Dems is that their chances of a re­vival largely de­pend on what their ri­vals do

The Observer - - NEWS - Andrew ew Rawns­ley ns­ley @an­drewrawns­ley wns­ley

With hoots of de­ri­sion. That is how most peo­ple are go­ing to re­spond to our in­ter­view with Vince Ca­ble, in which he de­clares an am­bi­tion to con­vince Bri­tain that he could be the coun­try’s prime min­is­ter. Sir Vince com­mands a par­lia­men­tary squad of just a dozen MPs and his party’s poll rat­ing lan­guishes south of 10 points. And he thinks he could be on his way to Num­ber 10? Even those who might pre­fer him as a can­di­date for prime min­is­ter to the alternatives will ask what on earth the Lib Dem leader can have been smok­ing.

Sir Vince has an ego, but I don’t think he has com­pletely lost his mar­bles. I doubt he thinks it all that prob­a­ble that he is go­ing to get to Num­ber 10 as the old­est prime min­is­ter since Sir Win­ston Churchill in the 1950s. What he is try­ing to sig­nal is that he wants to res­cue his party from the mar­gins to which it has been cast in the past two years and get it back into the heart of the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion. He wants to be taken se­ri­ously. He wants the Lib Dems to mat­ter again. He will have a ready au­di­ence for that mes­sage at the party con­fer­ence in Bournemouth.

The Lib Dems cer­tainly need some cheer­ing up. They thought the slaugh­ter they suf­fered at the 2015 elec­tion was the nadir. Their re­ward for five years of coali­tion was to be can­ni­balised by their Con­ser­va­tive part­ners and pun­ished by left­ish vot­ers who felt be­trayed. They en­tered the pow­er­share with the Tories with 57 MPs and came out of it with just eight. They thought things couldn’t get worse. In June, they were proved wrong. If the vot­ers gave Nick Clegg a sav­age beat­ing, they re­sponded to Tim Far­ron with a shrug of in­dif­fer­ence. The Lib Dems achieved a net gain of just four seats and their vote ac­tu­ally shriv­elled be­low the dire per­for­mance of two years ear­lier. In 2015, they were pun­ished for be­ing “a party of gov­ern­ment”. In 2017, Mr Far­ron tried to mar­ket them as “a party of protest” and fared no bet­ter.

Some Lib Dems ar­gue that the June elec­tion came “too early” for them. There is some­thing in that. The smell of coali­tion still clung to their clothes like stale to­bacco. Mem­o­ries of their time in power were too fresh for them to be an at­trac­tor of vot­ers who couldn’t stand the Tories, es­pe­cially when Jeremy Cor­byn proved a lot more adept than Mr Far­ron in the role of the anti­estab­lish­ment, anti-aus­ter­ity in­sur­gent. It was too soon for the Lib Dems’ un­equiv­o­cal op­po­si­tion to Brexit to gain the trac­tion that they had hoped for. As Sir Vince found out on the doorstep, a lot of the mid­dle-ground vot­ers they had ex­pected to at­tract were still pre­pared to give Brexit some ben­e­fit of the doubt. For many fu­ri­ous Re­main­ers, vot­ing Labour, de­spite the many con­tra­dic­tions and am­bi­gu­i­ties of its po­si­tion, was a bet­ter way to hurt the Tories. Then there was the large co­hort of vot­ers who didn’t re­gard it as the most im­por­tant is­sue in their lives.

Sir Vince clearly dis­dains the ap­proach of his pre­de­ces­sor. He dis­misses the idea that they should go back to be­ing “the plucky third party”, which jeers at the big­ger two from the touch­line, or a “none of the above party”, which is good for win­ning the oc­ca­sional by­elec­tion but never plau­si­ble as a con­tender for of­fice. He wants the Lib Dems to be seen as a cred­i­ble force that mat­ters to the na­tional de­bate.

He ought to be right that there is a chance for them. At first glance, the op­por­tu­nity looks to be a golden one. There is a heap of ev­i­dence that many vot­ers still iden­tify them­selves as broadly cen­trist and feel dis­en­fran­chised by a choice be­tween a Brex­i­teer­ing Tory party and a Cor­byn-led Labour party. That is a large ex­panse of po­lit­i­cal real es­tate wait­ing to be oc­cu­pied, a po­ten­tially deep reser­voir of sup­port that might be tapped. As the for­mer Lib Dem leader Paddy Ash­down puts it: “That space has never been more empty, voice­less, va­cant and un­con­tested.”

Back­ground chat­ter about the cre­ation of some kind of new cen­tre party is an ex­pres­sion of dis­en­chant­ment with the of­fers from the Tories and Labour. This tan­ta­lises the Lib Dems with the idea that they could pros­per from a dra­matic shake-up of Bri­tish pol­i­tics and, at the same time, it is a rep­ri­mand to them for not be­ing able to fill that space them­selves. In June, even as a sig­nif­i­cant slice of vot­ers ex­pressed dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the choice of Mr Cor­byn or Mrs May, they still plumped for one or the other, po­lar­is­ing be­tween the two main par­ties as they have not for decades and crunch­ing hopes of a Lib Dem re­vival in the process.

Gaze at the Labour benches in the House of Com­mons and you will see plenty of MPs sit­ting there who are more in sym­pa­thy with Sir Vince’s it­er­a­tion of so­cial democracy than they are with the ide­o­log­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion of their cur­rent lead­er­ship. Con­tem­plate the ranks of Con­ser­va­tive MPs and there are plenty of lib­eral, in­ter­na­tion­al­ist Tories who would be a lot more com­fort­able in the com­pany of the Lib Dems than they are shar­ing a party with the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Yet there has not been a sin­gle de­fec­tion from ei­ther the blue tribe or the red tribe to the Lib Dems. Why would they make that leap? How­ever dis­il­lu­sioned they might be with their own clan, why would a Tory or Labour MP desert a party that com­manded 40 or more per­cent­age points at the elec­tion to take their chances with a party that at­tracted fewer than 10?

Sir Vince’s pri­or­ity is a ba­sic one. It is to try to get some up­lift in the Lib Dems’ mis­er­ably low vote share in or­der to boost the party’s morale and per­suade its ri­vals and the me­dia to start treat­ing them with more re­spect. So long as a vote for the Lib Dems can be de­picted as a “wasted vote”, they will face a strong head­wind against any sort of re­cov­ery. So long as they don’t seem ter­ri­bly rel­e­vant to the na­tion’s des­tiny, they won’t be much lis­tened to. Part of the chal­lenge is the age-old one for the third party of get­ting a word in edge­ways. They strug­gled to re­ceive a hear­ing af­ter they were tipped out of gov­ern­ment in 2015. Dur­ing the elec­tion, when the broad­cast­ers were legally obliged to give them a fair crack, what air­time they re­ceived was dom­i­nated by ques­tions about Tim Far­ron’s views on gay sex. Not only did that crowd out their mes­sages, it was also a turn-off to the more so­cially lib­eral vot­ers they had hoped to at­tract.

Here, Sir Vince has a big ad­van­tage over his pre­de­ces­sor. He is re­garded as a grownup who de­serves to be taken se­ri­ously. The To­day pro­gramme thinks he is worth in­ter­view­ing. His rep­u­ta­tion was made dur­ing the fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 2007-08 when, as one of the rare voices to pre­dict that the bub­ble would burst, he ac­quired the sta­tus of prophetic sage. The econ­omy was strangely ab­sent from the ar­gu­ment at the June elec­tion, but it will become more salient over this par­lia­ment. Sir Vince is al­ready prov­ing a lot more suc­cess­ful than his pre­de­ces­sor at get­ting his voice heard through all the red-on-blue and blue-on-blue noise.

The Lib Dems can make them­selves mat­ter in par­lia­ment. They have a sub­stan­tial con­tin­gent in the House of Lords. Their pla­toon of MPs is small, but can still be math­e­mat­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant in a hung Com­mons. Sir Vince is try­ing to make the Lib Dems punch above their par­lia­men­tary weight by putting him­self at the heart of cross-party co­op­er­a­tion to amend the Brexit leg­is­la­tion.

The big­gest and hard­est truth for the Lib Dems is that their prospects of a res­ur­rec­tion largely de­pend on what hap­pens to their ri­vals. There is, for the mo­ment, a brit­tle truce in the Labour party be­tween Mr Cor­byn and his fol­low­ers and the many Labour MPs and mem­bers who are still es­sen­tially un­rec­on­ciled to what has hap­pened to their party. If that truce breaks down, if Labour is re­con­vulsed by its fun­da­men­tal di­vi­sions, there will be a re­vival of talk of a po­lit­i­cal realign­ment cre­at­ing a new cen­trist force. Sir Vince, once a Labour man who joined the mod­er­ate break­away to the SDP in the 1980s, could be well placed to ex­ploit the op­por­tu­ni­ties that would cre­ate.

The Lib Dems’ other great hope is that the anti-Brexit mes­sage that didn’t work for them in June will have in­creas­ing res­o­nance as the choices fac­ing Bri­tain become clearer, starker and more un­ap­petis­ing. It is sim­ply true – wit­ness Boris John­son’s lat­est in­ter­ven­tion in which he at­tempts to make him­self the champion of the hard Brex­iters – that the Tories are pro­foundly split. It is not at all im­plau­si­ble for Sir Vince to sug­gest that it will go hor­ri­bly wrong in the hands of this ran­corously di­vided gov­ern­ment. The Lib Dems might then de­rive some de­layed credit as the party that al­ways said Brexit was a bad idea and of­fers Bri­tain a pos­si­ble way out through a se­cond ref­er­en­dum.

Will this be enough to get Vince Ca­ble to Num­ber 10? Even in these volatile times, I wouldn’t want to bet my shirt on it. Is it pos­si­ble that the soil is be­ing fer­tilised for a Lib Dem re­vival? That is al­to­gether more plau­si­ble.

Many vot­ers still feel dis­en­fran­chised by a choice be­tween a Brex­i­teer­ing Tory party and Cor­byn’s Labour

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