Britain will “probably reverse Brexit” and Theresa May will not last long as prime minister, former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown has said.
In an interview with HuffPost UK ahead of this weekend’s Lib Dem conference, the peer also warned his party if it did not adapt to the modern age it was “going to die”.
“We should say we understand the referendum came to a conclusion we don’t agree with obviously, we respect that conclusion, but do not doubt we will continue to campaign to get Britain to return to the EU,” Lord Ashdown said.
“I think we should be very up front about that. That is where we want to go. That’s where we want our country to go. It’s no more undemocratic for us to say that than it was for Nigel Lawson and the anti-Europeans to continue to campaign to leave Europe even after the 1975 referendum.”
He added: “If you had asked me a couple of months ago ‘are we going to reverse Brexit’, I think I would have said on balance probably not.
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW POLITICS
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements. Learn more
“If you ask me that question now, I say on balance, by a narrow margin, I think we will probably reverse Brexit.”
He predicted the economic “price” of Brexit coupled with May’s failure to win a Commons majority would conspire to open the door to keeping the UK in the EU.
This past week saw the government win its crunch vote on the EU withdrawal Bill, the crucial piece of legislation that repeals the 1972 European Communities Act and takes the UK out of the EU.
However Lord Ashdown said despite all the noise, “what you have seen so far on Brexit is the phony war”.
And while there are divisions within both the Conservatives and Labour over Brexit, rebellions against the party lines have been relatively limited.
But Lord Ashdown said: “The real war now begins. My own view is while the parties have remained broadly cohesive in the face of Brexit, we are going to see a break-up of that”.
“Because of the election Mrs May can not get a hard Brexit, and if she tries to get a soft Brexit through the House of Commons it will provoke a stern revolt from the red in tooth and claw anti-Europeans,” he said.
“In may ways they have a little more courage I sometimes think than some of the Remainers do, who are nice, quiet, gentle folk who behave in a civilized fashion.
He added of the Brexiteers: “These people are not going to behave in civilised fashion.”
“I think there is a high probability that because of the government’s failure to negotiate [with Brussels] effectively up until now, because of the fact they are running out of time, because of the parliamentary arithmetic, there is going to come a moment which will be basically a stalemate,” he said.
“You can’t get through hard Brexit and you can’t get through a soft Brexit. In which case how do you get out of that?”
He said: “There are two answers to that. One is a general election. And the other is a second referendum.”
Lord Ashdown also said the prime minister, who has said she is not a “quitter”, was likely to be ousted by her own MPs at short notice.
“Mrs May can’t last. It’s an embarrassment,” he said.
“We do not know the issue, we do not know the timing, we do not know what the cause will be.
“But there will be some moment that arises, in January or February, in the dark days of winter, when we are all a bit fed up, when there will be a sort of ’whatever comes next, we have to get rid of this miserable, mangy, back-broken government, and get on with something new.”
Lord Ashdown said many Conservatives he spoke to told him “god this is awful” and “feel so ashamed”.
“I suspect we will wake up on a Monday morning, the Ulstermen will ask for something ridiculous, and by Thursday they will have gone it will take us all by surprise. I just don’t see how they can last.”
May’s position in Downing Street is only secured by her deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which struck a deal to vote with the Tories on important votes - giving the prime minister a Commons majority she lacks on her own.
Lord Ashdown was confident in his prediction that an election before 2022 was likely, but said “you can’t predict the outcome”.
“Looking at the nature of politics we are living in, it’s rather like asking what will downtown Miami look like just after the hurricane. You can’t tell,” he said.
Lib Dem MPs and activists will gather in Bournemouth on Saturday, under their new leader Vince Cable, for their annual conference.
While the party increased its number of MPs from nine to 12 at the general election, many had expected it do far better.
Lord Ashdown said he “immensely proud” of the position the party took under Tim Farron in the campaign to promise as second EU referendum.
But the hopes that ‘Remain’ voters would flock to the party and supercharge a Lib Dem fightback were misplaced.
And while Lord Ashdown said he did not want to rake over the result, he said the party “looked hostile” in the run-up to, and during, the campaign.
“We looked as though if only the Lib Dems distributed enough Focus leaflets and win enough by-elections that’s going to be it,” he said.
Lord Ashdown said his party needed become more like Emmanuel Macron’s En March, the Five Star Movement in Italy, or even the pro-Jeremy Corbyn grassroots campaign group Momentum.
“I think the Lib Dems, if they want to succeed, they must reshape themselves into something that looks like that,” he said.
“If you don’t change you are going to die,” he said. “And political parties in their current form are dying.”
“If you see a business model that takes no account of new technologies you see a business model that is about to fail,” he added. “If newspapers are a 1870 business model, so are political parties.”
“They are unchanged, vertical hierarchies, narrow at the top, broad at the bottom. Festooned with committees.”
Lord Ashdown said that while “liberalism is more threatened than ever before in my life” it appeared that the Lib Dems were not currently able alone to be “the instrument” to save it.
“British politics can’t stay as it is now. It just can’t. It is impossible for our country to have a political system that represents only the extreme Right and the extreme Left.
“I think the divisions that will open up in the lobbies of the House of Commons as we come to talk about the specifics of Brexit will loosen the whole political system.
“Something has to happen to make sense of British politics, to bring it back into kilter with the electoral make-up of the UK. ”
He added: “I don’t know what that’s going to be and the real question for the Lib Dems I wish we were the instrument of making that happen, but unfortunately we are a bit weak.
“The crucial thing for the Lib Dems is to say, how do we play our part in what is in my view the inevitable restructuring of the politics of the progressive centre.”
In the run-up to the election, there was a lot of talk about the creation of a new party of the liberal centre.
With Jeremy Corbyn expected to be leading Labour to a crushing defeat, another former Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, told HuffPost UK moderate Labour MPs should “break away and do something else” rather than remain in the party.
Lord Ashdown said in the UK, unlike in France, “absence of younger voices to carry the public” meant the prospect of a new party was also not imminent.
“En Marche couldn’t have happened had it not been for the success of Macron. En Marche couldn’t have turned form a movement into a party unless Macron had become president
“There has to be some political voice, or person, or group of people who provide a voice,” he said. “All the other ingredients are there but that is not.”
Chatter about a new party subsided following the election. But Lord Ashdown said he still expected something new to emerge from the ground up, rather than as a result of MPs defecting.
“I don’t believe that another SDP is likely. I think it happens in a different way, by people gathering together,” he said.
“We have a habit in politics, you guys [the media] do too, of viewing politics through the absolute tight little prism of Westminster.”
He added: “It’s what happens beyond Westminster that changes politics these days. You see that with Trump. You see it in the Brexit debate. You need to look at the forces outside the political circle, not just inside.
“I don’t think that you’ll get some sort of clap of thunder and a new party leaps in to being.”