‘Ap­palling’: Ca­ble rules out coali­tion with Cor­byn

On the eve of his party con­fer­ence, the Lib Dem leader tells Toby Helm and An­drew Rawns­ley he would work with Labour back­benchers seek­ing a po­lit­i­cal mid­dle ground

The Observer - - News -

Sir Vince Ca­ble has ruled out ever lead­ing his party into a for­mal coali­tion with a Jeremy Cor­byn-led gov­ern­ment, a move he says would be just as “ap­palling” as work­ing as ju­nior part­ners in an ad­min­is­tra­tion run by Boris John­son.

The Lib­eral Demo­crat leader – who would have pre­ferred to have joined forces with Labour un­der Gor­don Brown rather than David Cameron’s Tories in 2010, had the parliamentary arith­metic al­lowed – used an in­ter­view with the Ob­server to sug­gest that Lib Dems could in­stead work to­gether with dis­grun­tled Labour MPs. He says the lat­ter are plan­ning to leave the party in droves if Cor­byn be­comes prime min­is­ter.

Speak­ing on the eve of his party’s annual con­fer­ence, which opens to­day in Brighton, Ca­ble sug­gests he has al­ready held dis­cus­sions with dis­af­fected Labour mem­bers about join­ing what he has called a new “move­ment for mod­er­ates” on the po­lit­i­cal cen­tre ground. “If you talk to a lot of Labour back­benchers they just can’t, they’re not will­ing un­der any cir­cum­stances, to coun­te­nance a Cor­byn gov­ern­ment. It is quite ex­tra­or­di­nary, that. Few of them say it pub­licly but most of them say it pri­vately,” he says.

Many of this group, he adds, are ac­tively think­ing about what ca­reer paths to take next. “That’s what a lot of them are do­ing. I talk to peo­ple in the char­ity world who tell me they’re be­ing buried in CVs from Labour MPs.

“They’re just get­ting out while the go­ing is good. But if they formed a co­her­ent group, I’ve said that what­ever hap­pens with our in­ter­nal re­forms, I want to work with them. There’s no point slit­ting each other’s throats.”

With just 12 MPs, and poll rat­ings strug­gling to move up­wards (the Lib Dems are on 7% in to­day’s Opinium/ Ob­server poll), Ca­ble is seek­ing a new mis­sion for his party and his lead­er­ship as it draws to a close. Re­cently he an­nounced that he would step down when Brexit was “re­solved or stopped”, and out­lined plans to al­low non-MPs to en­ter the race to suc­ceed him. Ca­ble, 75, also said the party would al­low peo­ple to join as sup­port­ers with­out pay­ing fees, in an at­tempt to rein­vig­o­rate it and place it at the heart of the cen­tre-ground move­ment he seeks to build.

As busi­ness sec­re­tary, Ca­ble was a key fig­ure in the coali­tion gov­ern­ment from 2010 to 2015. Look­ing back, he has no re­grets about team­ing up with the Tories in the na­tional in­ter­est, de­spite the pun­ish­ing elec­toral con­se­quences for his party. “I don’t think we had an al­ter­na­tive,” he says. “It may sound a bit de­ter­min­is­tic but I think the very odd com­bi­na­tion of numbers com­bined with the fi­nan­cial cri­sis and peo­ple out there say­ing the whole bloody place is go­ing in flames. [In those cir­cum­stances] you can’t just sit there en­gag­ing in parliamentary games.”

Now, how­ever, Ca­ble says the most he can see his party agree­ing to, were there to be an elec­tion soon, is an ar­range­ment un­der which Lib Dems would work with Labour or the Tories on in­di­vid­ual is­sues. Coali­tions look out of the ques­tion. “They’re both pretty ap­palling in dif­fer­ent ways ... They’re both equally un­ac­cept­able,” he says.

A year ago, be­fore the last Lib Dem con­fer­ence, Ca­ble was on strik­ingly op­ti­mistic form, telling this news­pa­per he be­lieved there was a de­cent chance he could be­come prime min­is­ter, so un­pre­dictable was pol­i­tics. His de­ci­sion to pre-an­nounce his own de­par­ture a few weeks ago, how­ever, was con­fir­ma­tion that re­al­ity has dawned. He now seems to ac­cept that the job of leader has proved more dif­fi­cult than he ex­pected.

Above all, he says, it is hellishly hard work get­ting no­ticed as the leader of a small, mod­er­ate, third party, how­ever hard you try. “I mean, I re­mem­ber 10 years ago when I was act­ing leader I had two ques­tions a week in prime min­is­ter’s ques­tions. I am now al­lowed one ev­ery four weeks. That is what the speaker judges we de­serve. And on the back of that I had a Sun­day news­pa­per col­umn ... It is more dif­fi­cult.”

He tries not to sound frus­trated. “It is not for want of try­ing, I as­sure you, and cer­tainly I spend a lot of my time buzzing round the coun­try. We are mak­ing head­way but it is dif­fi­cult.”

Ca­ble be­lieves the chances of a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum on Brexit are ris­ing but still puts the like­li­hood only at around 30%. Like ev­ery­thing else in the de­bate about the UK’s fu­ture re­la­tion­ship with the EU, it is im­pos­si­bly dif­fi­cult to pre­dict – as is the tim­ing of his own de­par­ture as leader, or who will suc­ceed him.

Asked if it should be a woman, Ca­ble says: “It would fit with the spirit of the time, and there is a strong ar­gu­ment for do­ing it.” Most of­ten men­tioned is Jo Swin­son, the MP for East Dun­bar­ton­shire, who made history last week by bring­ing her 11-week-old son into the Com­mons cham­ber for a de­bate. Ca­ble says Swin­son would be “good, very good. There are sev­eral oth­ers but she is an out­stand­ing in­di­vid­ual.”

As for when he might go, Ca­ble says he “de­lib­er­ately avoided set­ting out a spe­cific time. Pol­i­tics is very un­cer­tain. Let’s as­sume Brexit is wrapped up by March/April next year. It may be or may not be. We then get our re­forms to put through, prob­a­bly in a sim­i­lar time frame.

“There will be lo­cal elec­tions in May. Then there is the likely chaotic out­come of Brexit pro­duc­ing a new prime min­is­ter want­ing a new elec­tion. And I’m there to fight for us and lead us into it and lead us through the other side. What I said was, there are cer­tain tasks to be done. I’m ap­proach­ing this in a pro­fes­sional way. I’m do­ing my job. And then I will move on.”

‘I talk to peo­ple in the char­ity world who tell me that they are be­ing buried in CVs from Labour MPs’

Vince Ca­ble

Pho­to­graph by Murdo MacLeod

Vince Ca­ble: ‘Things are more dif­fi­cult.’

Jo Swin­son, tipped to suc­ceed Ca­ble, in the House with her son.

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