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
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