On Thursday Vince Cable was crowned as the newest leader of the Liberal Democrats. Whilst he only inherits a modest parliamentary party of 12 MPs, he also commands an admirable membership of over 105,000 and growing. If the Liberal Democrats are to become a progressive, centrist political movement in the UK again, he should take incredible encouragement from the latter.
The fact that Sir Vince was simply anointed as leader, rather than having to endure a marathon summer leadership campaign, is potentially a festering burden. It could lead to a failure to critically assess the party’s performance in the general election campaign.
Whilst on the face of it an increase from 8 to 12 seats in the House of Commons should be welcomed, it ought not to be used as a way to hide what was truly a disappointing night for the party. The Liberal Democrats now have no seats in Wales, lost 0.5% of the popular vote since 2015, gave away their impressive by-election win to the much tarnished Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith, and somehow lost seats to Corbyn’s Labour in key marginal – particularly galling was the defeat of Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam.
The fact is that he is a well-respected economist and parliamentarian
In terms of Cable’s personal popularity – the party should not have a problem. Naturally, there will be multiple smears from the far-left bringing up the ‘bedroom tax’ or tuition fees, and the far-right will bemoan him being an ex-member of the Labour party (in fact prior to when the SDP was formed) and being a ‘remoaner’.
However, the fact is that he is a well-respected economist and parliamentarian. He is socially liberal to his core, and certainly won’t burden the party in media appearances as his predecessor did. Policy, however, will simultaneously be Vince Cable’s most valuable asset and greatest liability. Although the idea of a second referendum is in-and-of-itself not a bad policy, it was road-tested in the 2017 general election and ultimately proved unpopular; over 85% of people voted for parties who wanted some form of Brexit.
Vince Cable must quickly decide whether he attempts to recover much of the lost ‘Orange Book’ wing from the Conservatives (with now the perfect time given high levels of Tory disillusionment over Theresa May’s lacklustre campaign), or whether he relies on merely being the party of ‘remain’. I fear that if he chooses the latter he risks becoming a marginalised voice – Vince Cable will become a Nigel Farage equivalent, blaming everything on our not being in the EU – something I doubt will resonate with voters.
Nonetheless, Vince Cable must continue to talk about Europe, but in a more constructive manner. The referendum result has meant that we are leaving the European Union, but the government can and must now be scrutinised as legislation such as the Great Repeal Bill goes through Parliament.
He can expose Jeremy Corbyn for conning many students who, understandably, believed Corbyn’s disingenuous pro-EU rhetoric
Often the reason why the Liberal Democrats have not been taken seriously is because of this fraudulent label of ‘Euro-fanatics’ – something to which the party has pandered. The party can still be pro-European Union, but they cannot pretend that Europe is faultless. Vince Cable has a wonderful opportunity to emphasise climate change cooperation (particularly in the context of the threat posed by Donald Trump), and should not seek to defend a fundamentally flawed Common Agricultural Policy. Similarly, he can expose Jeremy Corbyn for conning many students who, understandably, believed Corbyn’s disingenuous pro-EU rhetoric only to learn that he is more Eurosceptic than Theresa May.
Vince Cable also must use his prestige to boast that the Liberal Democrats were endorsed by both The Economist and the IEA during the 2017 election, a fact all the more impressive given the IEA’s usual pro-Brexit stance.
It is not good enough for the party to gain slight satisfaction every night when they gain a council seat somewhere in Cornwall. The fact is that the party is still at below 8% in the Westminster opinion polls and this has to change. Vince Cable leads a team with more cabinet experience than the ‘Shadow Cabinet’ with impressive names such as Sir Edward Davey. He has a fantastic opportunity to regain relevance for the Liberal Democrats by exposing the worst, most directionless and unprincipled Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition in years.
Henry has previously interviewed Sir Vince Cable on behalf of RAW: