Sir Vince Cable says the Lib Dem policy of holding a referendum on the final Brexit deal is now “much more appealing” to voters, despite the party not getting “any traction” with that message at the snap general election last year.
It is six months since the 74-year-old was elected as Lib Dem leader, 30 years since his party was founded and one year until the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union.
Cable is speaking to HuffPost UK on Valentines Day - before meeting his wife Rachel at a “nice romantic restaurant down by the river”.
“The chances of stopping it are now quite high,” Cable says of Brexit. “I take the view the Lib Dems are important players. We have 12 MPs - but we have 100 peers and we have a big army in the country.
“But we are not going to do this on our own. We’ve got to do it by working with people in the other parties.”
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW POLITICS
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements. Learn more
It was supposed to be somewhat different. Under Tim Farron, the Lib Dems hoped to entice a large chunk of the 48% who voted ‘Remain’ to back the party with an overtly pro-EU campaign.
But it did not really work. Farron, having had his religious beliefs and views on homosexuality put under the microscope, resigned. He has since said he regrets saying he did not think gay sex was a sin.
“It wasn’t helpful and he acknowledged that himself. And that’s why he stood down,” Cable says of his predecessor.
“I don’t think it was what he said, that did upset quite a lot of people, it was the fact that he basically went missing in the early part of the campaign because he was preoccupied with that problem. He’s acknowledged that himself.
“I spoke out very strongly and made it clear that was absolutely not my view and absolutely not the party’s view. But he is a party spokesman I am not proposing to change that.”
Cable was essentially anointed party leader after Jo Swinson, now deputy leader, decided not to run.
What is the difference between Farron’s Lib Dems and Cable’s? “Well it’s an evolution of the same,” Cable says. “I think the change is not from the Tim Farron era, but pre-2015 and post-2015.
“We had taken a very bad hit in 2015. I think two thirds of our members have come in since 2015 and that process started under the last leader and its continued since. The membership has changed and the nature of the party has changed and of course Brexit has become an all-consuming issue.”
Cable, initially sceptical of committing the party to another referendum, has embraced the idea of giving the public a vote on the final Brexit deal.
“It didn’t happen in the 2017 election for sure,” he says of the success of that strategy. “But we haven’t had any real tests of electoral support since then.
“We do have lots of local by-elections where we tend to do very well actually.
“I think if there were an election now, there isn’t going to be, but if there was, I think our position is much more appealing.”
Earlier in the day, Boris Johnson had tried to love-bomb Remain voters with a promise of a “liberal” Brexit. However he also warned another referendum would only deepen the divisions in society.
“I think last summer, during the general election, I think there was some force in that argument,” Cable concedes. “It’s one of the reasons we didn’t get any traction.”
The most recent YouGov poll put the LibDems on 8% of the national vote. It won a 7.4% share at the election.
The first real test for the party since the general election will be May’s local elections London where the Conservatives fear a wipeout at the hands of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.
“We don’t think it’s going to be an easy election because we are defending a lot of seats,” Cable says.
“In some of the inner-city areas where we are up against Corbynistas we don’t underestimate the problems.”
But he says the party is hoping for “substantial gains” in his home borough of Richmond as well as neighbouring Kingston.
Cable says had Theresa May gone for a soft-Brexit, by which he means keeping the UK in the single market and customs union, a lot of pro-EU voters would have gone along with it.
“I think a lot of Remainers would have said ‘ok fine, we would rather not leave, but this is something we can cope with and it’s not going to cause a lot of economic harm’,” he says.
“The fact they are pursuing a much more extreme and also very uncertain outcome means that these divisions are not going to go away. They are becoming more extreme and acute. People will want to have a fresh look at this when they know what the outcome is.
“I think there is a peculiar thing you encounter with the public, on the one hand they are absolutely bored stiff with the subject but equally they’re very intensely divided.
“It’s worrying in the long run. As somebody used the phrase the other day, there is a kind of non-violent civil war’s going on. There’s an element of truth in that.”
He predicts a “big Tory rebellion” in the Commons over May’s plan to leave the customs union.
“There are a lot of people who probably wouldn’t go to the stake over the single market because of immigration issues but would go tot stake over the customs union,” he says.
Cable adds that while domestic issues such as the NHS, education, housing and broader economic policy matter, “Brexit is so central to parliament and the future of the country we have to prioritise it”.
Cable has been here before of course. He served as acting leader in 2007 during the transition from Sir Ming Campbell to Nick Clegg.
But that was under “very different circumstances” than where he finds his party today. “We had never been in government. So, you know, there was nothing to defend. It was all attack, attack, attack.”
Ten years on Cable, the former business secretary, acknowledges his association with the coalition “has been a factor in the past” but this “diminishing” as an issue.
“We do know from our surveys there about 25%+ of the electorate are considering voting for us. They may not, and they haven’t firmed up on it, but there is a potential market,” he says.
“From my recollection a majority of those who currently not voting for us but considering it are Labour, on the left Labour people.
“I guess the coalition was an issue for them but will become less so over time. The whole Brexit thing has brought other issues to the fore.
“There are some good things happening,” Cable says of his party’s position. “We have this record level of membership, lots of enthusiastic young people. We are the youngest of the three parties, I’ve discovered, in terms of average age. You go around the country and lots of kind of idealistic young people, full of energy who want to do things and that’s really good.
“I think the other thing that pleasantly, I’m not going to say pleasantly surprised me, but which is good - we’ve got a very good cohesive team. It would be nice to have a lot more than 12 MPs, but they are pretty harmonious and work together. They are very good and it has made my life a lot easier.”
In an interview with HuffPost UK during the election campaign, Cable said the formation of a new political party was “possible” – and dependent on how the Lib Dems performed.
Does he think that was still on the cards? “It could happen,” Cable says.
“Theresa May is locked in now to her red lines and they are not likely to change. We saw from Boris Johnson’s speech today that there are where they are and they are not going to reach out in any meaningful way.
“The Labour Party is much more uncertain I think. There is deep, deep, I know because I meet the people in their party, there is deep discontent with the Corbyn line.
“Because he did well in the election relatively speaking, there is as still an element of deference to him and the leadership, but there is deep unhappiness about the position he is taking up which is in practise supporting Brexit, whatever the wishy-washy rhetoric around it.
“It is out of step with the parliamentary party, with the trade unions with the party membership and I don’t know which way they will go. “
Asked whether he enjoys being party leader more than being a cabinet minister, Cable laughs that the jobs are “not enjoyment”.
But he says “there is some fun” to be had. “I had fun moment when I was a cabinet minister driving my [Aston Martin] DB9 round the circuit at 150 miles and hour. Being on Strictly Come Dancing and getting my ’10′ from Len [Goodman]. That was a genuinely fun moment.”
He adds with a laugh: “These are serious moments in my life.
Cable says being a minister was “constantly battling against internal things”.
“We worked pretty well together and we got agreement, but it was hard work. It was tough. Very tough,” he says.
“But you know. I survived the obstacle course. Being in opposition is almost by definition easier. I came in politics to do things. I don’t regret having been in government.”