Interview: Vince Cable

first_imgVince plans to retire as party leader in May 2019. As I begin to ask himabout it he corrects me and outlines his plans for his last few months asleader. “It is quite interesting that there was a ruling on Brexit because someonebrought a court case that argued the last referendum was contaminated byillegal practices. The judge threw out the complaint on the grounds that thereferendum was advisory. Had it been a binding referendum he would have upheldthe complaint. Brexit comes up quickly and is clearly a focal topic for Vince. “The thingabout Brexit is we don’t actually know if it will happen or in what way it willhappen. Even if something like Theresa May’s deal went ahead, we would stillhave years of chronic uncertainty as we negotiate a new agreement. I think onething that is certain is that as a result Britain will be weaker economicallyand politically. But it is more of a slow puncture rather than a blowout. We talk more about his involvement in student politics and how it influencedhis later career in the parliament. Despite having ultimately become the leader of his political party, when Iask him about his proudest achievements, he chooses to mention other things. “We are a parliamentary democracy and parliament could simply cancel Brexitaltogether. But, that would be offensive to the people who have already voted.So, the more democratic approach is to go back to the people and ask what theywant. Do you want to stay after all, or do you want to leave on thegovernment’s terms?” “It is also a sign that the conservative party are attempting to holdtogether a party which contains English nationalists, along with moretraditional One Nation Conservatives, which is proving difficult if not impossible.So I think the key point about TIG is that it demonstrates that the traditionaltwo parties are beginning to crack under the strain and Brexit has brought thiscrisis to a head. Theresa May’s deal did not get the support of the Liberal Democrats. I askVince how he feels about her leadership and how he would have conducted thenegotiations. After finishing his economics degree, Cable became a university lecturer,before working with the Kenyan government and eventually as an economicsadvisor in the corporate world. “I can’t predict the future. But I think we will make progress in terms ofparliamentary seats in government. But, there could also be a spectacular breakup in the party system, and if that happens, anything is possible.” “Many of those people in Parliament who are concerned with Brexit haveconstituencies that voted for remain, take for example Scottish MPs. But manyothers are acting because they believe it is in the national interest. Theybelieve that Brexit would be very damaging, and that people have a right tochange their minds. “Brexit is the symptom of deeper problems. I don’t pretend that there is asimple explanation because the Brexit vote was partly defined by geography,partly by age, partly by other things. But I think it did bring out the extentto which for a large number of people in left behind communities, like peoplein the north of England, there is a major dissatisfaction that needs to beaddressed. I think the relevance of the Lib Dems is that people are looking forpractical solutions, which combine our commitment to social justice with thepracticalities of working in a market economy. We demonstrated our competencein the coalition government and indeed in many areas of local government.” “At this stage a people’s vote is still possible: it’s not probable, but itis still possible. It is the best way out. It provides an opportunity forpeople to rethink their opinions because the world has changed a great deal inalmost three years. We’ve had Trump, external threats to the European Union,and many of the things that were promised clearly are not going to happen. Sothere is a good argument for going back for a confirmatory referendum. Normallywhen you are having an operation in a hospital or you are conducting areferendum, good practice is to go back and have confirmation. Now it ispossible that my side would lose. If that is the case we accept it with goodgrace and we get on with life. If we win we don’t have to triumph. We wouldhave to start dealing with the underlying causes and sorting things outproperly.” He talks with excitement about his aspirations when he steps down. “I don’t deny that achieving remain is what I’d be trying to do. I’m notembarrassed to acknowledge that. And there are people in parliament who supportBrexit, but do accept that it would be right and prudent to have a confirmatoryreferendum. I think what drives the opposition to a referendum among leave isthe fear that they would lose.” As we talk more about the role of Parliament and the people in the processof Brexit, he makes it clear that a referendum is the only way he sees to dealwith the situation that has been created. “Whether or not they succeed, I don’t know. If they work with us there is achance, but if they try and go on their own, under the British first past thepost system they will probably be swept out.” The other issue raised with a second referendum is the fact that it maybreed more division at a time where parliament should unify the country. “We have a divided country in any event and it is going to get worse when Brexitproceeds because we are going to be continuing to argue about our relationshipwith Europe. The people who are militantly pro Brexit are going to complain inany event that they have been betrayed. Having a referendum isn’t going tochange all that. I ask him what he feels this fundamental breakdown of the two-party systemwould mean for the Lib Dems going forward. He responds with more animation thanhe has had so far in our conversation. Before the interview ends, he offers me his prediction for the LiberalDemocrats in a rapidly changing political world. “The one big mistake that was made had nothing to do with negotiations withBrussels, but was to do with internal British politics. She decided at an earlystage not to do anything that was going to divide the Tory party. So we hadthese red lines keeping us out of the customs union and the single market andthat is what has caused all the problems since.” The Liberal Democrats have been strong supporters of a second referendumsince soon after the Brexit vote, a policy that has been strongly criticizedfor ignoring the will of the people and trying to force through a remainoutcome. When I put this to Vince he interjects before I have even finished thequestion. The conversation then turns away from recent events and towards Cable’s ownroute into politics. He was the President of the Cambridge Union, whilstreading Economics at Fitzwilliam College. He reflects on these formative years. “The Independent Group has the potential to act as the catalyst for majorchanges in British politics because it is an early sign of the breakup of theLabour party, which is finding it impossible to combine the Marxist-Leninisttraditions of the leadership with the social democratic tendencies that bothMPs and party supporters expect. It is impossible. In a way it is surprisingthat Corbyn’s leadership has been able to keep the Labour party together for solong. I think without a doubt we are coming to the end of that. “I see it very much as an opportunity. I am very positive about it. Iunderstand why they have decided to be a group of independents, but I thinkthere is a clear understanding that we are in a similar place politically, forexample with Brexit. I think there is a mutual interest in working together. Ican’t say exactly how and when, or indeed if, that will happen. But I thinkthat is the way forward and I am very positive about it.” “I think student politics is very important. Many of the people who haveleadership positions today came through student politics. I did myself, to someextent. When I was a student in the 1960s I was president of the Liberal Cluband we tried to form a merger with another club called the Social Democrats. Itfailed, but it was a first attempt to form what is now the Lib Dems. Thatmovement had its origins in student politics, and my own involvement in it tosome extent. So although student politics can be a bit juvenile and some of thebehaviour you see in the Oxford Union is not particularly impressive, at thesame time this is how people’s political views are formed and it is moreimportant than some would say.” In February a number of Labour and Conservative MPs defected from theirparties and formed The Independent Group, which became a political party inApril. They are a pro-remain, centrist party and arguably occupy the samepolitical space as the Liberal Democrats. Vince nonetheless seems positiveabout the creation of the party. “I have mixed feelings about Cambridge. I went as a scientist, so I spent myfirst two years in laboratories and I was not totally happy doing that. When Iswitched to economics I felt somewhat liberated and I was doing a subject Ifelt more comfortable with. My political involvement also started during mytime there. Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable, took onparty leadership after being re-elected to Twickenham in the 2017 snapelection, having previously lost his seat in 2015. He took on a party that hadsuffered at the hands of coalition, the controversy of Vince’s predecessor TimFarron and has created a clear pro-remain narrative to take the party forward.I began by asking him if Lib Dem leadership was ever something he expected andhow he feels about having had such an opportunity. “I’ve had two happy marriages and I have three children that are doing well.I think having a fulfilling personal life matters a lot. In my career, I thinkI did most of my most useful things when I was Secretary of State. I worked onindustrial strategy and changing the legislation around trade, as well asenvironmental policies and so on, which I think have stood the test of time. Ithink if people evaluate what I have done there were a lot of achievements inthat period.” “My economics background has been very helpful. First of all because I haveexperience in science and politics and many people come into parliament and theirwhole life has been spent as a researcher or working in politics, but I had aserious career teaching economics in universities and working in internationalorganizations. I was the chief economist for Shell, and worked with bigbusiness, so when I was in parliament I was able to make a reasonablywell-informed assessment of what was going on around the financial crisis. Itgave me more exposure than perhaps I would have got if I had just been a normalbackbench MP without that background.” “I lost my seat and I hadn’t expected to return. If I hadn’t been calledupon to stand in the snap election I would have retired. I had a big majorityand I was the most senior Lib Dem around so I stood for leadership unopposed.It was a pleasant surprise. It is not an easy job but it is an important one. Ithink we are now recovering quite strongly, particularly in government, and weare playing a leadership role on Brexit and I feel the party is in a strongerplace than when I started.” “It’s not just about Brexit, I have one or two more tasks to do. Thatincludes modernization of the party, we’ve got local government elections; wemay have an early general election. But yes, I am thinking of moving on quitesoon and there are some very good younger generation people looking to takeover.” “May thinks that she is doing her duty by delivering an outcome that shedidn’t personally support. She also, and I think this is correct, sees thenegotiations on Brexit as damage limitation. She knows that Britain will beweaker, economically and in other ways, as a result of Brexit and she is tryingto pursue a course of action that will keep the damage to a minimum. Thisinfuriates Brexiteers who are trying to portray Brexit in a positive light, butsadly it is realistic. I think she probably got the best deal that anyone couldhave got, I don’t think there is anybody else who could have done any betterconsidering that there was an objective to pursue Brexit. “I have two plans really. One is to be a good constituency MP: I love myconstituency and I want to continue doing a good job there. Secondly, I want togo back to writing books. I have some ideas in the pipeline which I will get towork on when I have some spare time.” “I think my most memorable time at university was when the Cuban Missilecrisis occurred. There was a lot of tension and fear around that. There wasalso the imprisonment of Mandela at that time, so there was a big outburst ofstudent protests, which I was involved in to some degree. It was the end of theConservative coalition war government, which had been in power since 1951 andhad been in power at that stage for 13 or 14 years. We were quickly heading fora new kind of politics so it was quite exciting to be involved in all of thatdebate.” last_img

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